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).

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.

This Week in London – London’s World War I transport in focus; Museums at Night; and, Tony Hancock remembered…

Opening tomorrow, a major exhibition at the London Transport Museum will take an in-depth look at the role transport played in London during World War I – from how London bus drivers took their vehicles to the front lines to the advance of women into the transport workforce for the first time and, of course, how Londoners fared under the deadly aerial attack of the Luftwaffe. Key among the objects on display as part of Goodbye Piccadilly at the Covent Garden site will be ‘Ole’ Bill’ – a 1911 bus on loan from the Imperial War Museum which was requisitioned for the front and, taking its name from Bruce Bairsfather’s popular cartoon character, featured regularly in Armistice Day parades until the 1960s. Other highlights include World War I recruitment posters, a 1914 female bus conductor’s uniform and a newly acquired piece of ‘trench art’ – a decorated Daimler bus steering wheel. Runs until 8th March. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.ltmuseum.co.uk.

The annual Museums at Night event kicks off tonight and runs until Saturday night. Among the premises participating this year is the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields which is showing a selection of rarely seen materials from its archives, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, Keat’s House in Hampstead and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London which is running a murder mystery event Friday night. Some events are ticketed and some have an admission charge so check out the website before you go. For more, see www.culture24.org.uk/places-to-go/museums-at-night.

The late comedian Tony Hancock was honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former home in South Kensington on Monday on what would have been his 90th birthday. Hancock, famous for Hancock’s Half Hour on radio and TV, lived on the fourth floor of a Grade II-listed building at 20 Queen’s Gate Place with his wife Cicely Romanis between 1952 and 1958. It was the longest time he lived at any property in London and coincided with the most creative and successful period of his career with the show first board cast on BBC radio in 1954 and also appearing on TV from 1956 onwards. Hancock died in 1968. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/.

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.

Around London – John Carter at Ham House; John Hegley, Keats’ poet-in-residence; blue plaque writers; and, mapping the Blitz…

Ham House near Richmond in London’s south west is making a star appearance in the new Disney movie, John Carter. The 17th century mansion, located on the Thames, is doubling as a New York mansion on the Hudson River and the cast and crew spent six weeks filming there in January last year. The film is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 sci-fi comic-book John Carter of Mars, about a civil war veteran who is magically transported to a turbulent new life on the red planet. For more on Ham House, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house/. PICTURE: ©2011 Disney.

• North London born poet John Hegley has been appointed poet-in-residence at Keats House in Hampstead for this summer. Hegley, whose poetry collections include Glad to Wear Glasses, The Sound of Paint Drying and My Dog is a Carrot, will host workshops and readings during his residency which takes place from 1st May to 31st October. He will also host the launch and closing event of the Keats House Festival, held at the house between 1st and 10th June, and present a series of meetings, entitled Sunday Tea with John (Keats), on the last Sunday of each month. These will include music and a 20 minute lecture about a particular aspect of Keats’ life. For more, see www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

• Writers Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen have been commemorated with English Heritage blue plaques. Caribbean-born Rhys (1890-1979) lived at Paultons House, Paultons Square, in Chelsea in the 1930s and it was while here that she developed her career as a novelist and penned Good Morning, Midnight (1939), now considered one of her finest works. Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) lived at 2 Clarence Terrace, Regents Park, for 17 years and during her time there wrote her two most celebrated works, The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949). Last month blue plaques were unveiled commemorating the home of singer Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003) – described by her biographer as “Britain’s first black star” – at Ovington Court in Kensington and that of florist to royalty Constance Spry (1886 – 1960) on the site of her Mayfair shop at 64 South Audley Street. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/.

Now on: Mapping the London Blitz. This exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell centres on a series of bomb damage maps made during the dark days of World War II. Created by the London County Council, the 110 large maps used a color code to indicate the extent of damage in individual buildings and covered 117 square miles. Now in its last days – exhibition closes on 29th March. For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/lma.

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.