Keats House refurbishment places poet in our time

By Richard Moss | 23 July 2009
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a photo of a white Georgian house

(Above) Keats House. Picture: Richard Moss / Culture24

The famous Hampstead lodgings of John Keats, one of the most read and widely-loved poets in the English language, re-opens this weekend after a major refurbishment.

The culmination of four years' painstaking research and restoration, Keats' home between 1818 and 1820 has been transformed, largely thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £420,000.

Despite only living at the site formerly known as Wentworth Place for two years as the lodger of Charles Brown, the House was the setting for an extraordinary period of poetic output and a love affair for Keats, making it a focal point for his devotees worldwide.

Keats wrote some of his best-known and most popular poems here, including Ode to a Nightingale, which he rattled off one morning while sat in the (now period restored) garden, as well as a slew of now-famous verses including further odes to Indolence, Melancholy and a Grecian Urn.

a photo of a room interior with Georgian patio doors

Keats' Parlour. Picture: Richard Moss / Culture24

The HLF's Ashley Kerr says this alone would make it one of the most important literary locations in the UK, comparing it to Milton's Cottage in Chalfont St Giles, but it is also now a very impressively detailed, Grade II-listed Regency house.

"What it does is place Keats not just in his time but also in our time," he says. "It has been so beautifully restored. You can now come here and feel a real connection with the man."

The life of John Keats has all the qualities one expects from a Romantic poet. His was a struggle for recognition, a heartbreaking story of young love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, and a tragically cut short life which showed such promise.

Keats House has the rare quality of being able to bring this story to life by offering the chance to enter iconic spots, such as Keats' Parlour, where he would sit quietly reading books from his personal library.

a photo of a room with chaise longue before a large Georgian window

Looking into Brown's Parlour from the corridor. Picture: Richard Moss / Culture24

Informed visitors will immediately recognise the room from Joseph Severn's painting, Keats at Wentworth Place 1821–23, which places the poet, head bowed, in a corner by the window, balancing a book on his lap.

Across the corridor, with its mustard walls and Hogarth prints, is Brown's Parlour, where the spirit of Keats is evoked by a chaise-longue of the sort upon which he spent several languid hours, weakened by consumption, gazing out of the window catching glimpses of his sweetheart.

Keats became ill in early 1820 and, after arriving at Wentworth Place chilled and unwell one night, he took to his bed and coughed up blood. Brown remembered later how the poet "said with a calmness and countenance that I can never forget, 'I know the colour of that blood, it’s arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour, that drop of blood is my death warrant.'"

Visitors can venture upstairs to the scene of this grim discovery, the ailing poet's bedroom, which he described as "a dull room upstairs where one gets tired of the patterns of the bed curtains." The atmosphere and sense of death is palpable.

Today it boasts a Regency tester bed, a commode and a marble topped night table. On the wall is a copy of Joseph Severn's sketch of Keats on his deathbed in Rome. A death mask, taken in Rome in February 1821, is illuminated eerily in a display case.

a cabinet containing artefacts and portraits

Picture: Richard Moss / Culture24

These vivid connections have been heightened by a meticulous makeover which considered everything from the carpets to the original grey paint on the windows.

"We have had about eight different teams working on research items ranging from the garden and wallpaper to the paint, decoration and fabrics," says Tim Harris, the Technical Service Manager overseeing the restoration. “We even at one stage had an archaeological investigation in the front garden, which was sadly inconclusive, but we have done a lot of research behind the scenes.

"All of the carpets have been made to contemporary designs and when we researched the paints on the walls we discovered 12 layers. We took a conscious decision that we would largely keep those layers of paint – there may be people in the future who know and understand more."

a room with a chair, wardrobe and regency costume on a dess making mannequin

Fanny Brawne's bedroom. Picture: Richard Moss / Culture24

Investigations also uncovered period panelling and surviving wallpaper, and botanical investigations have restored the garden, based on Regency domestic examples.

Staff at the House understand the importance of detail and the powerful atmosphere the House evokes for some visitors.

House Manager Mick Scott remembers a woman who promptly fainted when given a rare opportunity to hold a Keats manuscript. "I tell people the story [of Keats] and I can reduce people to tears," he adds. "I've done it twice to my boss – it is just that kind of story."

Additional cabinets and display cases throughout the House – some of them discreetly placed in formerly locked cupboards – allow a wealth of fascinating artefacts from the Keats House collection to tell even more of the story.

a cellar room

Brown's wine cellar. Picture: Richard Moss / Culture24

Downstairs, the kitchen has also been restored. It now boasts its original period dresser, correct flagstones and a rather fine if modest wine cellar attached to the pantry. Matching the feel of the upstairs section, it's a space saturated in the ambience of the early 19th century.

But it's one of the smaller items on show upstairs that steals the show. Back in Keats' day the House was a respectable semi and, in what was once the Brawne's side of the House, the engagement ring he gave to Fanny Brawne is on display.

When the news of Keats' death reached Hampstead, Brawne went into mourning for six years and remained unmarried for 12. She wore the ring from 1820 until her death in 1865. It's just one of the stories which makes the life of Keats all the more tangible.

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