Famous Londoners – John Keats…

This month marks 200 years since the death of Romantic poet and London resident John Keats – famous for poems including Ode to a Grecian Urn and Ode to the Nightingale – at the age of just 25.

Born on 31st October, 1795, Keats was the eldest of Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings’ four children. The story goes that he was born in the stable – owned by his mother’s father and managed by his father, located near Finsbury Circus.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn (based on a work of circa 1822) National Portrait Gallery (NPG 194)

At the age of eight, Keats attended the boy’s academy at Enfield (his brothers George and Tom would also attend). He had been at the school for less than a year when, on the night of 15th April, 1804, his father was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident and died the following day.

Within a couple of months, his mother entered an ill-fated marriage and eventually left her family to live with another man. She returned to her family by 1808 but, now ill, she died of tuberculosis in March, 1809. following his mother’s death, his grandmother appointed two London merchants including tea broker Richard Abbey as Keats’ guardians.

Keats, meanwhile, built up a close friendship with headmaster John Clarke and his older son Charles Cowden Clarke at Enfield and through them really began to foster a love of literature (in particular Edmund Spenser‘s Faerie Queene is said to have helped awakened his love of poetry).

But at Abbey’s instruction he left Enfield in 1811 and began to work toward a career as a surgeon, apprenticed to surgeon Thomas Hammond, in nearby Edmonton.

In October, 1815, he left his apprenticeship with Dr Hammond, apparently after a quarrel between them. Moving into London, he registered at Guy’s Hospital for the six-month course of study which was required for him to become a licensed surgeon and apothecary. Lodging with two older students at 28 St Thomas Street, he progressed quickly and was soon promoted to “dresser”, a role which saw him involved dressing wounds daily to prevent or minimize infection, setting bones, and assisting with surgery.

Poetry, however, continued to occupy his mind and his sonnet O Solitude! became his first published poem when it appeared in The Examiner on 5th May, 1816 (editor Leigh Hunt, who was introduced to Keats by Clarke later that year, also went on to publish other works including his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Home).

Keats, who became a certified apothecary in late 1816 (he’d holidayed in Margate with his brother Tom after passing his exams earlier that year), now faced further studies to become a surgeon. But he instead decided to give up medicine and devote himself entirely to his poetry (a move which apparently infuriated his now sole guardian Abbey). About the same time he moved into lodgings at 76 Cheapside with his two brothers, George and Tom (there was also a sister Fanny), having previously lived with that at 8 Dean Street in Southwark.

His circle of artistic acquaintances – which included fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and painter Benjamin Robert Haydon – now growing, in March, 1817, Keats’ first book of poetry – Poems – was published. It was also around that time that he moved with his brothers to a property at 1 Well Walk in Hampstead, no longer needing to be near the hospitals where he had worked and studied.

In May, 1818, Keats published his 4,000 line allegorical romance, Endymion, but it received a rather scathing reception including by Blackwood’s Magazine which apparently declared the work nonsense and recommended Keats give up writing poetry.

In summer that year, Keats went on a walking tour of Scotland, Ireland and the Lake District with his friend Charles (Armitage) Brown. Following his return to Hampstead, Keats nursed his brother Tom who was ailing from tuberculosis (George having by now left for America) and who died on 1st December.

Following his brother’s death, Keats accepted Brown’s invitation to move into his property at Wentworth Place, located on the edge of Hampstead Heath (now the Keats House museum).

Keats’ House in Keats Grove, Hampstead. PICTURE: Spencer Means (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

While living at Wentworth Place, Keats developed an intimate relationship with next-door neighbour Frances (Fanny) Brawne and the couple “came to an understanding” but his literary ambitions and failing health – by early 1820 he too had tuberculosis – meant it never came to marriage.

Keats third volume of poetry – containing his famous odes including Ode to a Nightingale and Ode to a Grecian Urn – was published in mid-1820 but now increasingly suffering from tuberculosis, he was advised by his doctors to head to a warmer climate. In September that year he left for Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn (who painted a famous posthumous portrait of Keats), knowing he would probably never see Brawne again.

In Rome – having had to spend 10 days quarantine after the ship arrived in Naples due to a suspected cholera outbreak, he moved into a villa on the Spanish Steps (now home to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum) but, despite medical efforts, his health continued to deteriorate.

John Keats died on 23rd February, 1821, and was buried in the city’s Protestant cemetery. His tombstone bears no name or date, just the words “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water” and an epitaph which speaks of a “young English poet”.

Keats, depicted in a 2007 bronze statue at Guy’s Hospital PICTURE: under_volcano (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Keats had only been a serious poet for some six years prior to his death and his three volumes of poetry had probably only amounted to some 200 copies. But his reputation continued to grow after his death with support from the likes of Shelley, Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites, and he is now well-established in the literary canon as one of the greatest English poets.

As well as Keats’ House – which is managed by the City of London and which features an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the facade, Keats is memorialised with several other plaques in London and a famous statue at Guy’s Hospital which features him seated in a former alcove removed from London Bridge – see image above).

10 sites from Mary Shelley’s London…10. Memorials to Percy Bysshe Shelley…

And so we come to the final in our series looking at London sites which tell part of the story of Mary Shelley, writer of Frankenstein, the book which this year marks its 200th anniversary. Of course, one of the most influential figures in her life was her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, so to finish the series, we’re taking a quick look at three sites memorialising him in London…

1.  Poland Street, Soho. Shelley lived at number 15 after he was expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for publishing a pamphlet on atheism. He wasn’t here long – in August he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, then just 16, to Scotland. The building, which stands on the corner with Noel Street, features an English Heritage Blue Plaque and there’s a massive mural on its side, Ode to the West Wind, which takes its name from a poem he wrote in 1819. It was painted by Louise Vines in 1989. PICTURE: Google Maps.

2. Broadwick Street, Soho. The impressive Spirit of Soho mural on the corner with Carnaby Street was created in 1991 and restored in 2006. It features the images of numerous famous figures from the district’s history. As well as the likes of Casanova and Marx, Shelley also features – located a couple of people to the right of Casanova (here seen in red) at the base of the mural’s central panel. PICTURE: Dun.can (image cropped; licensed under CC BY 2.0)

3. Westminster Abbey. There’s no memorial to Mary Shelley in Westminster Abbey but in Poet’s Corner – located in the South Transept – you will find a small memorial to her husband. The joint memorial (which also commemorates John Keats) was designed by sculptor Frank Dobson and unveiled in 1954 by then Poet Laureate John Masefield. It simply features two plaques – one bearing the name Shelley and the other Keats with their birth and death years – linked by a “swag of flowers” attached to a lyre at the top of each plaque.

And that brings and end to our series on Mary Shelley’s London (although, of course there are still more sites associated with Shelley to explore!) . We’ll recap the series next week before launching our next Wednesday special series…

Lost London – The Mermaid Tavern…

Located on Cheapside (with entrances on Friday and Bread Streets), the Mermaid Tavern is best known for being the home of Elizabethan-era drinking club known as the Mermaid Club (and also as the Friday Street Club or even the ‘Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen’). 

cheapsideFounded in the early 17th century (and meeting on the first Friday of each month), its members included such literary luminaries as Ben Jonson, John Donne and Francis Beaumont.

There are also suggestions it was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh and that William Shakespeare was also a member but modern scholars have cast doubt upon both claims.

The earliest reference to the tavern, meanwhile, dates from the early 15th century.

The tavern, the location of which today corresponds to the corner of Bread and Cannon Streets, burned down in the Great Fire of London but lives on in John Keats’ poem Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.

London Pub Signs – The Spaniards Inn…

Stories abound about this historic Hampstead pub – one of London’s oldest, not the least about the origins of its name.

Spaniards-InnTheories about the name include that it was named for a Spanish ambassador attending the court of King James I who sought shelter here during an outbreak of plaque. Others suggest it was named for a Spanish landlord – Francisco Perrero – or for two brothers who once owned it (that is, until one of them died in a duel they fought over a woman).

Whatever the truth, the atmospheric pub, located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, has apparently been around since 1585 and the stories about its connections with the famous (and infamous) number even more than those about its origins.

Highwayman Dick Turpin is associated with the pub (some stories suggest he was born here, although this seems unlikely) and the establishment  is known to have played an important role in sparing nearby Kenwood House, then the home of Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 – apparently it was the action of the landlord, Giles Thomas, in throwing open the cellars which diverted the attention of would-be rioters from the task at hand to one perhaps more enjoyable.

The pub also features in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula while among those who frequented it were painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lord Byron as well as John Keats who, the story goes, wrote Ode to a Nightingale in the rather extensive garden.

Located in Spaniards Road, this Grade II-listed pub, as well as the main building, features an old toll house on the other side of the road which contains a horse trough (it has been suggested that Turpin stabled Black Bess there but take such claims with a grain of salt!).

Well worth a visit for refreshments after a stroll on the heath. For more, see www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk.

PICTURE: Philip Halling/Wikipedia 

London Pub Signs – The Globe…

GlobeNo, this pub on Moorgate is not related to William Shakespeare. Its name actually comes from the globe which was used as the emblem of Portugal and advertised the fact that fine Portuguese wines were on sale at the premises.

According the pub’s website, there were eight pubs with the sign of the Globe in London during the reign of King Charles I (when this pub was apparently founded). By the middle of the 19th century, the number had risen to more than 30.

There are still a few other Globe pubs in London – as well as this one, others include the Globe in Marylebone Road and The Globe Bow Street (although we’re not sure whether their names were derived in the same way).

The pub, which is located at 83 Moorgate – close to where Moorgate once punctured London’s city wall and gave access to the fens known as Moorfields. In 2008, the pub merged with the neighbouring pub, the John Keats, now commemorated in the name of the bar (that pub was named for the Romantic poet John Keats, who it has been speculated was born in a pub on the site in 1795).

The pub is now part of the Nicholson’s group. For more, check out its website at www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/theglobemoorgatelondon/.

This Week in London – London’s architectural festival; Tower Bridge celebrates its 120th with gifts; and, unseen Nicholsons at Dulwich – plus late addition: this year’s Keats Festival…

The month long London Festival of Architecture kicked off this week with the first of more than 200 activities taking place right across the capital. Now in its 10th year, the festival features talks, exhibitions, film screenings, cycle rides, open studios and the chance to explore the city with experts at hand. Headline events include a gathering of international architects at Balfron Tower where they will come up with new ideas for the surrounding area of Poplar as they explore the influence of emigre architecture on London, a talk by Will Self on architecture, and an exploration of ‘The Death and Life of Great London High Streets’ with experts guided people around newly completed projects. Other highlights include the House of Muses, an architectural installation at the Museum of London, the rare chance to see a late 16th century model of country house Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire which was commissioned by Sir John Soane (and will be on display at the Sir John Soane Museum), and the art installation, The Pungent Subway which will see a 55-year-old subway in Elephant and Castle transformed by sweet-smelling herbs and flowers as well as GUN Architects Rainforest in Bedford Square. For a full programme of events, many of which are free, check out details on the website, www.londonfestivalofarchitecture.org.

London icon Tower Bridge celebrates its 120th anniversary this year and to mark the event, the Tower Bridge and its events partner Seasoned Events are giving away free tickets to special sunset event. To take place on its high-level walkway on 30th June, the night, which runs from 7pm to 9.30pm, will feature Victorian-themed entertainment in commemoration of the age in which the great structure was constructed. For your chance to win tickets, look out for special competition posts by Tower Bridge on Facebook (www.facebook.com/towerbridge) and Twitter (@TowerBridge) from 9th June and share them on social media by 19th June. As many as 120 lucky winners will be selected at random and notified by 5pm on 20th June. Each ticket includes entry for two and a drink token (and obviously you must be in London and available to attend on 30th June). Good luck! For those who don’t win, there is a consolation prize – entry to the Tower Bridge Exhibition is being dropped to just £1.20 (120 pence) on 30th June when buying tickets at the door. The exhibition will that day also be playing host to a range of ‘Victorian visitors’ – from policeman and tourists to engineers. For more, see www.towerbridge.org.uk.

• Featuring previously unexhibited or rarely seen works by important 20th century painters Ben and Winifred Nicholson, a new exhibition opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London yesterday. Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920-1931 features more than 80 words with 16 being displayed for the first time including Ben Nicholson’s 1926-27 (still life) and Winifred Nicholson’s Flowers in a Glass Jar. The display is a rare opportunity to see works by the Nicholson’s different views of the same landscapes, seascapes, still-lives and portraits and has the works grouped by locations where they painted including London, Lugarno in Switzerland, Cumberland and Cornwall. Alongside works by the Nicholsons, the display also features the art of their fellow artists and friends including Christopher Wood, the self-taught marine painter Alfred Wallis, and potter William Staite Murray, and the exhibition is curated by the Nicholson’s grandson, art historian Jovan Nicholson. Runs until 21st September. Admission charge applies. For more see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

Late addition: The annual Keats Festival kicks off at Keats House in Hampstead on Saturday, 7th June, with highlights including guided tours of the house, plenty of poetry readings and workshops, musical performances, a screen-writing workshop and a family day on 15th June. Other events at the Keats Grove house where the poet lived between 1818 and 1820 include an afternoon tea “in the company of Keats” and an offsite event held at UCL’s Bloomsbury campus next Friday – One Day in the City: A Celebration of London and Literature – which will feature performance poetry, a seminar on Keats and a contemporary retelling of The Canterbury Tales. Many events are free but many require pre-booking. For more information, check out www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/attractions-around-london/keats-house/Pages/Keats-Festival.aspx.

Send all items of interest for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

Around London – Celebrating the Coronation’s 60th anniversary; Benjamin Britten; Keat’s House Festival; and, silver service in Roman Britain…

Westminster-Abbey3Sunday marks 60 years since Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and Westminster Abbey – site of that event – is celebrating with a series of events. These include a special 60th Anniversary of the Coronation Service on Tuesday (4th June) to be attended by the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and members of the royal family as well as a public lecture to be given by the Bishop of London Richard Chartres on Friday night (7th June – booking is essential), a concert performed by the abbey choir (13th June), and a new exhibition in the chapter house featuring archive images of the 1953 coronation ceremony and of preparations which took place at the abbey. Meanwhile the Coronation Chair, used in most coronations since the 14th century and having just undergone conservation work, is the subject of a new display in St George’s Chapel, and two new commemorative stained glass windows have been installed in King Henry VII’s Lady Chapel – the first commissioned by the abbey for more than a decade, they have been designed by artist Hughie O’Donoghue. For more on the abbey’s celebrations, see www.westminster-abbey.org.

Composer Benjamin Britten is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the British Library tomorrow. Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) looks at the poetic and literary influences on the work of the man often described as the greatest English composer since Purcell. In particular it examines his collaboration with WH Auden and the interplay of his work with authors such as William Blake, Wilfred Owen, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Shakespeare. As well as composition manuscripts, the exhibition features photographs, concert programmes and unpublished recordings of his music. There are a range of events accompanying the exhibition which runs until 15th September. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.

The Keats House 2013 Festival is underway this week with activities ranging from poetry readings to felt-making demonstrations, free family workshops and musical performances. The programme of events runs until 2nd June, all under this year’s theme of ‘Health is My Expected Heaven’: The Body and The Imagination. Poet John Keats lived at the house in Hampstead, not far from Hampstead Heath, from 1818 to 1820 and it is the setting for some of his most acclaimed poetry including Ode to a Nightingale. It was this house that he left to travel to Rome where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. For more on the festival programme, follow this link.

On Now: Silver Service – Fine dining in Roman Britain. This free exhibition at the British Museum recreates the experience of dining late in the Roman era and uses the Mildenhall Great Dish, Britain’s finest late Roman silver dining service, as an example of the type of large platter on which food for sharing would have been presented. The exhibition, which runs until 4th August, is free (keep an eye out for our upcoming Treasures of London on the Mildenhall Great Dish). For more information, see www.britishmuseum.org.

Where’s London’s oldest…livery company hall?

The oldest livery company building, that of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, dates from just after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Originally built in 1672 to the designs of surveyor Edward Jerman, it replaced an earlier building which had been destroyed in the fire. It has since been refurbished several times and while the external facade appears as it did in the late 1700s, the interior layout, with Great Room – complete with original Irish Oak panelling, Court Hall and Parlour, is as it was when first built after the Great Fire.

Previously members of the Grocer’s Company (and earlier still, the Guild of Pepperers), the Apothecaries Society was incorporated as a City livery company on 1st December, 1617, when it was granted a royal charter by King James I.

They purchased a building in 1632, known then as Cobham House (previously owned by Lady Anne Howard), on land formerly part of Blackfriars Priory (see our former post on the priory here) – it was this building which was destroyed in 1666.

Among treasures inside the current hall is a portrait of Gideon de Laune, Royal Apothecary to Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, and credited as founder of the Society which was was presented to the Society  in 1641 and hangs in the Court Room. There’s also a 24-branch candelabrum in the Great Hall which was presented to the society by Sir Benjamin Rawling, Sheriff of London and Master of the Society in 1736.

Now one of the largest of the livery companies in the City and still active in regulating medical practitioners, it is 58th in order of precedence and is still active in its trade with the organisation’s constitution requiring 85 per cent of the Society’s membership belong to the medical profession. Past luminaries have included the Romantic poet, John Keats.

The society is also known for having established the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673 – making it one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world – on land granted it by Sir Hans Sloane (see more on him in our earlier post here).

The hall is available for hire. For more information on the Society, see www.apothecaries.org. Visits to the hall are by prior arrangement only. Contact the Beadle via the above website to find out more.

LondonLife – Poet Ted Hughes commemorated in Poets’ Corner


The late Poet-Laureate Ted Hughes was honored in a ceremony in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner last week with the dedication of a hand-carved memorial slab. 
The memorial includes a quotation from his work That Morning: “So we found the end of our journey, So we stood alive in the river of light, Among the creatures of light, creatures of light…”. The memorial to Hughes, who died in 1998 at the age of 68, was placed at the foot of that of TS Eliot, who was a mentor to Hughes. Among those who attended the commemoration were Hughes’ widow Carol and his daughter Frieda as well as literary figures including Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Sir Andrew Motion, Michael Morpurgo and Graham Swift. Other literary luminaries commemorated in Poets’ Corner (only some of whom are buried here) include Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Lord Byron and John Keats as well as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. For more on Poets’ Corner, see www.westminster-abbey.org.

PICTURE: Carol Hughes lays a bouquet of flowers and herbs from the garden of the Hughes’ Devon home at the memorial. (Copyright Dean and Chapter of Westminster).

Keats’ love letter to be returned home; a royal wedding Oyster; youngest Spitfire pilot honored; and, The Cult of Beauty at the V&A

A love letter Romantic poet John Keats wrote to his beloved Fanny Brown will be returned to the house in which it was written. Keats wrote the letter in 1820 while living next door to her at Wentworth House in Hampstead, north London – his home from 1818 to 1820 and the setting that inspired some of his most memorable poetry including Ode to a Nightingale. The City of London Corporation, who manage the house – now a museum known as Keats House, recently purchased the letter with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund for £80,000. They say it will now be returned to the house and displayed there. In the letter Keats wrote: “I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been – Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things.” He said his consolation was “in the certainty of your affection”. See www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

Amid the host of souvenirs and trinkets up for sale in the lead-up to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton comes news of a unusual offering from Transport for London – a limited edition royal wedding Oyster card. The card, which will go on sale in the week leading up to the ceremony, features a portrait of the couple and their wedding date – 29th April, 2011. More than 750,000 of the cards will be offered for sale. The move is not without precedent – in 1981, a unique ticket was produced for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

• Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, the youngest Spitfire pilot to take part in the Battle of Britain, was granted the Freedom of the City of London at a ceremony at Guildhall last week. Wellum was just 18-years-old when he joined the RAF in August 1939. Serving in a frontline squadron, he flew many combat missions including dogfights during the Battle of Britain and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

• On Now: The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in . Said to be the “most comprehensive” exhibition ever staged on the Aesthetic Movement in Britain, it brings together masterpieces in painting as well as sculpture, design, furniture, architecture, fashion and literature of the era and explores some of the key personalities  involved in the movement – from William Morris and Frederic Leighton through to James McNeil Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Oscar Wilde. Organised in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition runs until 17th July. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). See www.vam.ac.uk.