‘The spring was always inchantment [sic] to me – I would get away from suffering – in watching the growth of a little flower, it was a real delight to me – it was part of my very soul – perhaps the only happiness I have had in the world has been the silent growth of Flowers.’
John Keats to Joseph Severn a few weeks before death
This image is part of a series made during my artist Residency at Keats House Hampstead. I have worked with the idea of crowning the poet laureate with flowers and wreathing him as though for oblivion.
John Keats died in Rome 200 years ago, on 23 February 1821, and this image, feels particularly poignant to mark the day. He died in Rome having travelled there to try and recover from TB. He was accompanied by a faithful friend, Joseph Severn, who spent long hours tending to his fevered brow. As Keats approached death he enquired of Severn as to the cemetery where he was to be buried. Severn reported that it was already blooming with violets and daisies. It also happened that the coffered ceiling in Keats’s room was covered in a daisy motif. These images combined enough for him to say that he could already feel the daisies growing over him.
‘ I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave – thank God for the quiet grave – O! I can feel the cold earth upon me – the daisies growing over me – O for this quiet – it will be my first’
Keats quoted in a letter from Joseph Severn to John Taylor, 6 March 1821.
Flowers are embedded in Keats’s story of apothecary to poet. He studied for 4 years as an apothecary at a time when plants were essential for medical treatment. Opting out of surgical training he became a poet and the unique knowledge gained fills his poetry and letters with floral metaphor.
I chose to work with pressed flowers as they are a vehicle for expressing something both transitory and lasting. Some I brought back from a visit to Keats’s grave last February. Pressing is a traditional technique but one that is ripe for some contemporary re-working. The flowers are placed on a photograph of Keats’s mask. I love the idea that most people think that it is a death mask when in fact it was made during his life. And thus it contributes to play with ideas of cheating death and immortality.
Shed no tear - O, shed no tear!
The flower will bloom another year.
Weep no more - O, weep no more!
Young buds sleep in the root's white core.
John Keats, ‘Fairy’s song’
Gareth Evans, who specialises in the history of plants and medicine, calls Keats a poet laureate of the lock down because he was so aware of the cycle of life and makes analogies between natural growth and his own creativity.
When Keats House reopens later in the Spring, you will be able to see the full installation which seeks to honour Keats’s legacy by alluding to human frailty and resilience. Flowers are embedded in John Keats’s story and are a vehicle for expressing something both transitory and lasting. As an artist I can relate to Keats’s desire for recognition and the fear of leaving no mark. Above all it was the power of his imagination and emotion that is so inspiring; in these uncertain times we might at least follow “where airy voices lead.”
He ne'er is crown'd
With immortality, who fears to follow
Where airy voices lead.
John Keats (1795-1821), Endymion, Book ii
Read Keats200: Death and Legacy and find out more about Keats’s life.
Elaine is a London based artist whose work is held in numerous collections including The Museum of Fine Art in Houston and The V&A, UK. She is Artist in Residence at Keats House, Hampstead during the Keats200 bicentenary programme.
Follow @elaine_duigenan on Instagram to see more of her work created during her residency.
The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.