From my late teens onwards I have made regular trips to Keats House in Hampstead, London NW3. I was born and brought up in North London and the relatively short journey to Keats Grove, close to the beautiful heath became a kind of pilgrimage for me. I would take family, friends, a reluctant boyfriend or just go by myself to take in the calm atmosphere and feel just a little closer to the poet I had been drawn to from the age of twelve.
I knew even then that the house had been significantly remodelled since Keats had lodged there at various times between 1818 and 1820. The greatest changes were made by the actress Eliza Jane Chester. She bought the house in 1838 and knocked through the walls to create a larger home. She also added a drawing-room at the eastern end of the house. By the time I first visited in the early 1980s a first refurbishment had been undertaken and decoration was not authentic. Some of the wallpaper was suspiciously ‘Laura Ashley’ in design and too often there would be a typewritten explanation that Keats ‘may have’ seen this or ‘sat there’. It never mattered. I was inspired most by the displays of a collection of original manuscripts and letters. Keats’ last letter to Mrs Brawne, Fanny’s mother, which contains the intensely poignant postscript ‘Good bye Fanny! god bless you’ used to bring the pricking of tears to my eyes each time I visited. The life and death masks had a similar effect.
Wentworth Place, as Keats House was first known, had been built for less than five years when Keats first moved in. William Woods, a local builder, started construction of what was originally two separate residences in 1814. Work was completed in 1816 and the first occupants were Charles Wentworth Dilke and his family and Charles Armitage Brown, who became Keats’ close friend. Brown took Keats in to lodge with him following the death of John’s brother, Tom Keats, from tuberculosis in 1818. When the Dilkes moved to Westminster the Brawne family moved in to what was then the larger part of the house. John Keats and Fanny Brawne fell in love and were separated only by his removal to Rome, where he went at the suggestion of friends and doctors in a vain attempt to restore his health. He died of tuberculosis in 1821.
Keats House has recently undergone a transformation. By the late 1990’s it was clear more major works were required to the house to prevent it becoming structurally unsound. A programme of conservation work began in 1999 and in 2007 Keats House was awarded £424,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). In 2009 it re-opened, the interior painstakingly restored to create an environment that Keats would have recognised and which offered the visitors that travel to visit from all over the world a much more authentic regency ‘experience’. The House can also now run a comprehensive and varied programme of events for all ages on topics not restricted to Keats and his poetry. On offer in the next few weeks, for example, are a talk on A Regency Garden and a Keats House Kids Soiree.
The Keats House Collection also houses a significant amount of material relating to Keats and to the house, including original letters and jewellery belonging to Fanny Brawne.
I was inspired to add this post to my John Keats blog page by a contact via that page from Amanda White. Amanda is an English contemporary artist living and working in Spain. A fellow Keats enthusiast she was inspired by a recent trip to the House to produce a series of collages that ‘re-build’ Keats house in quite a different way. She says:
She works in a naive style that I love and I know she hopes Keats House might be interested in producing some of her work as cards, perhaps at Christmas. I for one would send them to everyone I know. She has also worked with lino cuts and I particularly like the one to the right below:
Amanda has a blog at http://amandawhite-contemporarynaiveart.blogspot.com/
Her site includes examples of all her work on a variety of subjects. Those that relate specifically to Keats House (Wentworth Place) can be found here.
If you live in London, (and I frequently wish I were back there), Keats House and museum are well worth the short trip up the Northern Line from the centre of the capital to Hampstead. The garden has also been remodelled and is free to enter; locals and tourists alike are welcome to picnic there.
Although my sister may still joke about the plaque she saw beneath the plum tree in the garden stating it is like the one Keats might have sat underneath to compose Ode to a Nightingale, I know that with just a fraction of the imagination John Keats himself possessed it is possible to dream yourself back to the early 19th century and sense the presence of poetry.
My thanks to Amanda for permission to reproduce her work here. Please do visit her site, especially if you enjoy contemporary art.