Keats House refurbishes its displays with more Keats treasures on show to the public

By William Axtell | 29 May 2015

More precious artefacts from the most romantic of Romantic poets go on display at Keats House in Hampstead

A small painting of a fashionable 19th century woman.
Poignant artefacts include this watercolour miniature of Fanny Brawne© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
Keats House has overhauled its museum space, displaying for the first time many iconic manuscripts and artefacts illustrating the life of English poet John Keats

Keats lodged in the Hampstead house between 1818 and 1820, where he wrote his most famous poetry and met his soulmate Fanny Brawne.

“We’ve got an amazing collection of manuscripts and books which belonged to Keats,” says curator Vicky Carroll.

a photo of an open handwritten manuscript
Keats' Medical Notebook© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
Two books stand out. The first is a medical notebook from Keats’ time as a medical student.

“He was a good student,” says Carroll. “He passed his exams first time.”

The notebook reveals Keats had exquisite handwriting, accompanied by contemporary pieces of medical paraphernalia. On loan from the Science Museum, they include forceps, a bone saw and a jar for leeches.

a photo of the frontispiece of a old book with an inscription
Keats' copy of Milton's Paradise Lost© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
The museum is also displaying Keats’s copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton was one of the most important influences on Keats, especially during his early years, and one can well imagine how much this little book was thumbed through and loved.

Keats did more than write poetry at Keats House. He also fell in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne.

He described her as “beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange” but any lasting happiness was not to be. Marriage was thwarted first by his financial problems and then by the tuberculosis which eventually killed him.

a photo of a wax sealed handwritten letter
Keats' last letter to Fanny Brawne, writtne from his deathbed in Rome© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
The museum has put on display two beautiful objects which tell of Keats and Fanny’s courtship. First is a love letter, written in March 1820, when Keats was parted from his love by confinement to his sick bed. In it, he speaks of how he holds Fanny’s lips the “dearest pleasure in the universe”.

Perhaps even more personal is the engagement ring he gave to Fanny.

“Keats and Fanny had their own secret arrangement and Keats gave this ring to Fanny,” says Carroll.

A thing of beauty, though one befitting a poor poet’s pocket, the purple almandine-set ring stayed on Fanny’s finger until the day she died.

The ring and letter are arranged sensitively in a case also containing a watercolour miniature of Fanny and a little beadwork bag of her own creation.

a photo of a ring with a purple stone
Fanny Brawne's engagement ring© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
A final aspect explored by the new exhibits is that of Keats’ death and legacy.

“As his consumption became worse his friends decided to send him to Rome,” says Carroll.

Joseph Severn, a painter, accompanied him to the city and nursed him until his death on February 23 1821. Thereafter, he dedicated himself to preserving Keats’s memory.

Two objects of Severn’s are particularly fine. One is a brooch he had commissioned in memory of the poet. Inside is a golden lyre, strung delicately with strands of Keats' hair. Also on display is a large oil painting showing Keats sitting on Hampstead Heath, distracted from his reading by the song of the nightingale which would go on to inspire his Ode to a Nightingale.

a painting of John Keats seated by a coastal woodland with moon shining through the trees
Quintessential Romanticism© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
Outside of simply displaying new and wondrous objects connected to the poet’s life, Keats House has carefully considered how to use them to illustrate his life, his poetry and his relationship with Fanny.

The rooms are themed, from the room celebrating his work and influence on Pre-Raphaelite painters to the bedroom focussing on his illness and death.

Emphasis has also been placed on engaging the audience interactively with Keats’ life. A copy of Keats’ face mask allows visitors to touch him (as they are reputedly inclined to do) and the basement features opportunities to dress up in period costume and read extracts of his poems painted on the walls.

  • The Keats Festival 2015 is on until June 7 with performances, talks, films, workshops and family activities, and the chance to meet the new Poet in Residence, Michael Rosen. Visit the festival website for more.

a photo of a Georgian-era parlour
Keats House, John Keats' Parlour© The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
a photo of a white, two-storey Georgian House framed by the leaves of a tree
Keats House in leafy Hampstead© Courtesy The City of London, Keats House, Hampstead
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Latest comment: >Make a comment senses go numb every time I think of John Keats; his poetry and a tragic life. He died young exhibiting love of highest emotions of the highest level.. "Keats eternal"
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