London: Keats House

DSC07487Do you remember that post from a couple of years ago where I went to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome?  Well, I suppose it was about damn time that I finally got around to visiting Keats House in London (though frankly, if it wasn’t for the nightmare that is the Italian immigration “queue,” it almost seems like less hassle to get to Rome than to Hampstead from where I live.  Plus Rome has better pizza).  (As you can probably tell from my attire, I’ve been hanging on to this post for a while…pretty sure my arms would fall off if I tried walking around outside in a tank top now.)

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, this visit was not spurred on by a sudden interest in Keats, or in going to Hampstead, but by the fact that Keats House is a National Art Pass property, so I could get in for free. Keats House is normally £6.50 though, which is more expensive than its 5 euro counterpart in Rome, even with the current lamentable exchange rate.  It is most easily accessed from Hampstead Heath Overground Station, though it’s quite easy to miss the little sign directing you to turn down the road it’s on if you don’t really know where you’re going.

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Although we were given a map of the house that told us what order to walk around in, I didn’t actually open the map until we were down in the basement watching the video on Keats’s life, so I had already screwed things up by not immediately looking around the ground floor.  I don’t think it really mattered that much though, especially as the video provided more background information on John Keats’s life than was available in the rest of the house, so it was quite useful to watch it first.  The basement also held the house’s kitchen, and a few little interactive things, like a dress-up box (hello tricorn hat!) and a station where you could draw a picture of a food you loved or hated and write a little poem.  I did one on how much I hate mayonnaise, but it was a poor effort mostly stolen from the excellent “Please No Mayonnaise” song from Shooting Stars, so I won’t show it to you.

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And so back to the ground floor.  The whole deal with Keats and this house is that before the tuberculosis and the fame, Keats was a young surgeon training at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge, who had a passion for poetry. There was a community of fellow poets living in Hampstead at that time (we’re talking Regency here) who Keats befriended, and they encouraged him in his writing.  He eventually realised he didn’t have time for both surgery and poetry, so gave up his surgical career to move to Hampstead with his brothers and pursue poetry full time.  Unfortunately, his older brother decided to move to America, and his younger brother died of TB soon after, so with nowhere better to go, Keats moved into this house (Wentworth Place) with his friend, Charles Brown, and the Dilke family, who were already living there, meaning Keats only had a study and a bedroom to himself.  The Brawne family later moved into the other side of the house, which is how  Keats met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and they got engaged.  However, Keats had by then begun to manifest serious symptoms of the tuberculosis that had killed his mother and brother, so only ended up living in the house for about 18 months before moving to Italy in hope that the climate there would help his condition.  It didn’t, and he died shortly after arriving, in the house that is now the Keats-Shelley Museum that I blogged about in 2014.

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Anyway, that’s the quick(ish) version of Keats’s relationship with Hampstead, and the study that he rented is on the ground floor, where you can still see it today (and replicate Keats’s pose in this portrait), though I don’t think most of the furniture is original to the house.  There were only labels on a few things in each room, and no binder full of additional information like you’ll find in other historic homes, so there wasn’t a lot to go on.  I did think the label on the couch was quite sad though…I can picture Keats just wasting away (in between violent coughing fits) whilst gazing upon his lady love in the garden (though I guess it would be creepy if his feelings weren’t reciprocated).

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There’s a “Shakespeare Trail” currently in the house to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, which mainly just consisted of an additional insert in the map they gave us, and copies of Shakespeare’s plays with little labels saying how much Keats loved them (the whole Shakespeare thing seemed a bit forced, to be honest), but there was also this rather hideous inkwell featuring the Bard that apparently belonged to Keats’s older brother.  I tend to like gaudy things, but that inkwell was a bit much, even for me.

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The house seemed to be a mix of rooms decorated roughly as they would have been when Keats lived there (I suppose so anyway, like I said, there wasn’t much explanation of anything) and museum style cases holding artefacts relating to Keats’s life.  There were an inordinate amount of life and death masks in here. Honestly, it looked like the guy must have spent half his short life with his head encased in plaster (which probably didn’t help with the TB either; I can’t imagine plaster dust is great for the lungs).  There was even a case with Keats’s life and death masks side by side, and you had to guess which was which (they never actually told you, but I’d seen the death mask in Rome, so I had a pretty good idea).

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Upstairs, there was a small gallery about a walking trip from the Lakes District to Scotland that Keats took with his friend Charles Brown, and Brown reckoned they’d walked over 600 miles, which is damned impressive for someone in the early stages of TB.  I mean, I’m healthy, and there is no way I would walk that much in a summer without an epic amount of complaining, and probably my hips and my knees aching (seriously, I never thought I’d have this many aches and pains in my early 30s.  Aging sucks).  There was also a sketch made of Keats in Rome by his friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied him on that last, ill-fated trip…I sort of alluded to this in the other Keats post, but he looks damn fine in that sketch.  Far better than he did when he was healthy (first Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, now consumptive Keats…I think I have a problem).

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Another room held items relating to Fanny Brawne, Keats’s fiancee.  There was a photograph of her when she was in her early 50s, and she was a very nice looking woman, not to mention well-preserved!  She could have easily passed for someone in their 30s.  There was also her engagement ring, which I actually quite liked (Laura Ingalls Wilder also had a garnet engagement ring, so maybe I just like garnet in a historical context.  Personally though, I’m not a big red person), and a pretty cool dress with no label on it at all (a re-creation of one of Fanny’s dresses?  Just a random Keats-themed dress?  No idea).

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Aside from Keats’s bedroom, which was on the first floor (climbing those stairs must have been a real effort after he got sick) and was where he coughed up the arterial blood after a coach trip that made him realise he was dying (thanks to his experience with TB and his training as a surgeon, he was under no illusions about his condition), that was more or less it for the house.  Though I enjoyed the dress-up and colouring opportunities (yes, I know they were probably aimed at children, but none were there), I think the rest of the house could have been improved with more information about Keats.  There was a fair amount about his poetry, and plenty of chances to read or listen to his poems at audio stations set up at several points throughout the house, but I still feel there could have been more details provided about the furniture and Keats’s life, short though it was.  So I’ll give it 3/5, because I don’t think it was anywhere near as informative, or as good of a value as the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.  Of course, if I was escaping into the house from crowded, hot, touristy Rome, instead of quiet, shady Hampstead, perhaps I would have liked it better.

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10 comments

  1. Thanks for this, Jessica. I am fond of Keats’ life story (he has a place in my new book) and his poetry, so I read this eagerly and you didn’t disappoint! I like your informal way of taking us along with you on these tours, and thanks, too, for the photos.

    1. Thank you for the compliments, Cynthia! I admit I have a bit of a soft spot for Keats too; he seemed like he was much less arrogant than most of the other Romantic poets (I’m looking at you, Byron!) and of course the tragic early death doesn’t hurt!

    1. Well, he does have to share the Roman one with Shelley and Byron, but it is still good going, if you ignore the whole dying young part. It seems like if you want stuff named after you, a tragic death is the way to go, especially if it’s heroic, but it’s a Catch-22 since you won’t be around to appreciate it. Just look how much stuff is named after Edith Cavell! I even came across some random bridge in New Zealand named after her!

    1. Thanks for stopping by the ol’ blog! I do think Keats House would have been better if the curators had decided whether they wanted to approach it as a historic home, or a museum, because the mix they’ve got between both isn’t really working. Keats was an interesting guy though, although that could just be my fascination with tuberculosis talking!

  2. Good grief, so many masks! I can’t recall ever hearing of someone having more than one done.
    I should probably find the bit about Keats watching Fanny in the garden romantic, but all I can think is it must’ve been a lot of pressure on her to be doing something interesting. … Though more than likely she was less neurotic than I am, and that wasn’t really a thing.
    I agree about garnet rings – historically I love the idea of them but in reality I don’t like that deep shade of red.

    1. Yeah, I can’t imagine. I had to make one once for art class in middle school, and the experience of being plastered was pretty unpleasant, especially when you’re surrounded by obnoxious fellow pre-teens who you don’t really trust. Unfortunately, we had to decorate ours, so it’s not even useful as a life mask, since I painted a stupid plaid pattern all over it (I think I was really into the Dropkick Murphys at the time…).
      I didn’t think Keats watching Fanny was particularly romantic either (it sounds hilarious using the British definition of fanny though); it sounded more kind of stalkery, as I implied, and also a bit pathetic. I suppose he just drew inspiration from her beauty or some crap, as I’ve been led to believe a Romantic poet would do. Honestly, if it was me, I’d forget I was being watched, and start scratching my butt or something. That would make for an interesting ode!

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