There is many a building in London with a Blue Plaque on the wall indicating some famous person lived there at such and such a date. But a visit to Keats House in London’s Hampstead Village offers more than just historic facts; this London Museum is a window into the story of a great romance.
Wentworth Place (now renamed) on Keats Grove (previously named John Street and Albion Grove) is where the Romantic poet John Keats lived from 1818 to 1820. Less than two years, but what a period in this young man’s life it proved to be.
He moved into the left-hand part of the semi-detached house as a tenant of his friend Charles Brown in late 1818. It was here that he wrote the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – written under a plum tree in the garden according to Charles Brown – and many other famous poems, spending hours wandering on nearby Hampstead Heath.
And it was here he fell intensely in love with the girl next door. In 1819 the other part of the house was let to a Mrs Brawne and her children. Keats’ sister Fanny became friends with Miss Fanny Brawne.
At first Keats’ letters to his sister Georgiana criticise his young neighbour but it is easy to infer that he was enjoying interaction with the “minx”. Later, in a letter to Miss Brawne he says: “The very first week I know you I wrote myself your vassal.”
So who was this Regency beauty whom Keats called his “Bright Star” in the 1819 love sonnet he gave her? She was a highly creative and spirited woman. As a middle class woman of her time her creative outlet was fashion and needlework. In Keats House you can see the fashion plates she collected and some of her scrapbooks. These were probably a record of the dresses she actually sewed and wore herself. There are also items such as ‘a fichu scarf’ on display that she made.
They became engaged in 1819 but how could the impecunious poet support a wife. The early signs of tuberculosis were also beginning and Keats wrote to Fanny: “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks;” he wrote to her, “…your loveliness, and the hour of my death”.
In Keats’ bedroom, which is furnished in Regency style is a copy of the poet’s death mask, which was taken a few days after his death. There is also a painting of Well Walk in Hampstead village where Keats lodged with his brothers before moving to Wentworth Place – the painting shows a seat at the end of the road, which is now known as Keats Corner.
Keats House displays a portrait of Keats by William Hilton (painted in 1822) on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. There is also a copy of the certificate allowing the poet to practice as a doctor after his earlier training at Guys Hospital.
It always gives me a funny feeling to come across a New Zealand connection – the George II Long Case Clock in the parlour was taken by Charles Brown when they emigrated to New Zealand in 1841, and since brought back. Part of the clock has even been replaced with a New Zealand wood from when it was damaged on arrival in Taranaki.
It is wonderful wandering through the rooms where Brown and Keats would have entertained friends such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb.
Downstairs there are Spartan kitchens, workrooms and storerooms. A large lead sink that was prolbably used to collect rainwater is the only plumbing the house would have had.
The house would have been almost new when Keats lived there and it has seen various changes since his time, including being joined together as one house. It was almost demolished to build a block of flats in the 1920s but fortunately money was raised to make it into a memorial museum.
In September 1820 Keats left Hampstead and travelled to Rome for his health on the advice of his doctors, knowing he would never see Fanny again. He moved into a villa on the Spanish Steps, which is also now a museum). He felt unable to write to her or read her letters (none of which survive).
Keats died in Rome in February 1821, aged just 25 years. So what became of Fanny? It was many years before she formed another attachment, staying in mourning for six years.
Perhaps the most poignant display in Keats House is on the ground floor, where ‘The Bright Star Display Case’ contains items that belonged to Fanny. Her dressmaking scissors; the ring Keats gave her; a small oil lamp which it is said he used as an inkwell and gave her on his departure for Rome.
Eventually she married Louis Lindon in 1833 and had three children. She could finally indulge her passion for travel as they spent much of their lives together travelling through Europe. The scrapbooks in Keats House show images from her travels. I hope she was very happy.