Two weeks ago (yes, I am a little slow getting this blog post written) the papers offered some interesting headlines for those, like me, who are fascinated by the life and writing of the poet John Keats. A ‘rare lifetime portrait’ of Keats has been found by Bonhams in America and alongside five drawings by Constable will go on sale in the summer.
One of the early posts I wrote on this blog was entitled ‘Picturing John Keats: Image or Imagination?’, and it has been one of my most-read pieces over the last two and a half years. I was curious to know, particularly in light of Ben Wishaw’s portrayal of Keats in the wonderful 2009 film ‘Bright Star’ , how important it is to us to have an ‘image’ of the physical Keats in our mind as we read his poems and letters. There are so many portraits, both contemporary and posthumous, of him that the ‘real’ John eludes us; the sensitive, frail romantic poet, dying young and eulogised by the likes of Shelley so unlike the written descriptions of the man. So when this apparently ‘unique’ new image appeared it was more than intriguing.
Bonhams believe the painting was acquired by the owner, recently deceased, in the 1950s, but other than that its journey to auction is unclear. It was reproduced as a frontispiece to a biography, published by Stanford University Press, in 1933 but the artist is not known. It has been attributed, loosely, to a circle of painters around Charles Hayter, an artist of miniatures famous in the early years of the 19th century but this is by no means certain. In fact, it seems we know little about it at all, other than the ‘technique and framing’ are contemporary with the final years of Keats life.
In ‘Picturing John Keats’ I concluded that for me, the very best way to form a true and lasting ‘picture’ of Keats is to read his poetry and, most particularly, his letters. As a teenager I adopted the Hilton portrait ‘after’ a miniature by Joseph Severn as my ‘photo’ of the poet I literally adored, but as I grew older I understood more about the context behind such work, and other portraits that often spoke more of the artist than the poet himself.
Having discussed this latest portrait with many others who know something of the poet and his life, it seems I am not alone in thinking it rather feeble. Some writers have suggested he is ‘young’ and that perhaps it is an image of him whilst he was studying medicine. There are two points to consider when considering that possibility: a) he was only 25 when he died so any portrait would show him as ‘young’ and b) why would such a miniature have been taken of him, Byronic collar and all, at that stage in his life? If one examines it alongside the Severn Miniature (reproduced to the right), painted in 1818, it looks like rather a poor copy. As my Facebook friend, artist Amanda White, noticed, the parting on the hair, the collar and jacket, all show marked similarities to Severn’s work, which WAS painted from life.
In fact, it was most noted that in this portrait he has a resemblance to correspondent of the Right, Peter Hitchens, or to ex-PM Tony Blair. Neither comparison deeply flattering to Keats, in my opinion anyway.
As with the recent sale of a fragment of Keats writing, it is a testament to Keats that his life and work can still create a media stir – more so probably than many of his fellow Romantics – but I for one hope this chubby image, lacking any of the fiery passion Keats was known for, is not one that becomes a commonly used or lasting one.
It is interesting to me to try and understand why we are so keen to have an image of writers before our eyes as we read. I often flick to the back inside cover of a book to see if there is a photo of the author; I love to examine the difference between portraits, thinking about what aspect of the subject’s personality the artist was looking to convey. Am I the only person to feel this curiosity?
But going back to this portrait, and ignoring that inner voice that wants to visualise the ‘real’ Keats writing, or reading with one foot resting on his other leg, I go back to my original plea to anyone who wants to ‘know’ Keats: focus on the words, his work. Not on the imagination of others…