Joseph Severn: letters from Italy

A self-portrait drawing by Joseph Severn. He is facing right with his right arm extended in the act of drawing the picture.
Self-portrait of Joseph Severn. Joseph Severn (1793 - 1879). Pencil drawing. About 1822. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PZ/02/003.

The artist Joseph Severn sailed for Rome from England with John Keats on board the ‘Maria Crowther’ in September 1820. Alone in Italy nursing his dying friend, and with few acquaintances, Severn began writing letters to his friends and family to let them know how they both were, and ultimately to inform them of Keats’s death.

For Severn this was the beginning of a life filled with correspondence, and a large number have survived. Grant Scott’s ‘Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs’ selects 178 letters written by and to Severn; the Keats House collection itself has around 195 by Severn himself. Severn’s correspondents included Keats’s friends William Haslam and Charles Brown and his publisher John Taylor. He also corresponded with Richard Monckton Milnes in the 1840s, supplying information for his biography of Keats, and with Harry Buxton Forman in the 1870s for his four volumes of Keats’s works.

Severn died in 1879. He was buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, but it wasn’t until 1882 that his body was re-interred next to Keats in the old section of the cemetery. William Sharp was the first to attempt to tackle the huge amount of correspondence and the memoirs that Severn had tinkered with during his life. This resulted in his ‘Life and Letters of Joseph Severn’, published in 1892. Grant Scott described the book as a work in which Sharp has

‘consciously amended his sources in a variety of ways’

and as

‘a late-Victorian interpretation of Severn’s life rather than a trustworthy and reliable edition of his writings.’
A colour miniature portrait of a family sitting in a row close together. On the left are two boys. The older and taller boy is playing the harpsichord. Their three sisters are sitting in the middle, dressed in white and wearing lace bonnets. On the right are their mother and father.
Group portrait miniature of the family of Joseph Severn. From left to right, his brothers and sisters Charles, Thomas Henry (Tom), Maria, Sarah, Charlotte, his mother Elizabeth and his father James. Joseph Severn (1793 - 1879). Watercolour on ivory. 1820. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PZ/01/238.

In 1821 after Keats’s death in February, Severn wrote to his mother in England sometime in the Spring. The letter shows that he had recovered from the traumatic experience of Keats’s death, but that it was still a difficult subject for him to think about:

My dear Mother

  Well how are you? – who says I am not a lucky dog? – did I not think that the good God above would never let me suffer for serving my poor friend – poor Keats – I cannot get him out of my head – never shall out of my heart – never – I often drop a tear to his memory– Thank God I have perfectly recovered my health – for it had suffered – I am now better and stronger than ever I was – this place – the manner of living –every thing seems to agree with me – I am more equal to my studies than I was in England – I am really looking quite fat and formidable – […] I dine at a Palace (for every place is a Palace here) at 1 o’clock – I have a bottle of wine – […] I have not tasted beer for 4 months – this Wine is glorious compared with your muddy Beer – then at 6 I have 2 Cups of Coffee with a Bun – and never any supper – I don’t know how it is but the example of poor Keats has made me take great care of myself – I never take any Physic – for I never want any – I walk 3 hours every day – paint 8 hours – and read 2 or study Italian – Have you now my dear Mother any cause to fret about my coming here? – If I go on as I do now you will not very soon have me back again – You send me word about poor Keats  He must have been dead and buried before Maria wrote – his case was a real Consumption – his lungs were entirely destroyed – this is the most dreadful disorder in England – persons to all appearance in perfect health are most subject to it – sometimes whole families have a defect in the lungs which changes to Consumption – I cannot write anything about my poor friends death – I cannot dare to think on it […] – It is a great comfort to me that none of us is Consumptive […]
A hand-written letter. The first page of Joseph Severn’s letter to his mother Elizabeth, written in Spring 1821.
Joseph Severn’s letter to his mother Elizabeth, Spring 1821, page 1. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/MS/02/076, SFL [3].

In April he wrote to his father James. Severn was now thinking of the future and his career as an artist, which at the beginning was supported by the Royal Academy.

My dear Father
  O! how happy I am I came here – every thing I do I am successful in – my Miniatures are very much sought after – I have painted five and got 40 Guineas for them – one was a slap-bang job – There are about 500 English here now – and I can have any number to paint – […] If I like I may be a God in Painting here compared with the others – […] This is a glorious place for a young painter – every thing at hand – everything he can want – Thank God I am in every way successful – I have settled poor Keats affairs most victoriously – in the room where he died every thing was ordered to be burned – […] the Law here they are so afraid of catching the English Consumption – the rooms have been entirely made new – windows – doors - walls – ceiling – floors all new – all this I have paid for – but the wretches were cheating me – the Landlady had done the rooms in the most extravagant way thinking that I must pay for it all – but no – I have been protected by a Roman who has made them take just one sixth their demand – I have beat them at every point – but I am an Englishman – and here an Englishman is a God – You would be overjoyed to see how nobly I get on – every one tries to serve me – I have received so many presents – and have such respect shown me – that I would not be other than your Son Joe – to be Pope of Rome – So you have been alarmed about the armies advancing – well you might be – for never was such warlike preparations – such valor in talk – such intrenchments – but I suppose you know it has all gone off with a pop – the Neapolitans are quite forgotten – it is all over – we are just the same here.

  If the Academy keep me here or not – I shall be able to do much better than ever I could in England – it is a fine thing for me to have the gold Medal here – I am the first for 20 Years – this is the reason of my success – the name of a Gold Medal is like Magic everywhere – I have an invitation out to dinner every day – but I have only been twice – for I come here to study – […]
A hand-written letter. Part of the third page of Joseph Severn’s letter to his father James of 10 April 1821.
Joseph Severn’s letter to his father James, 10 April 1821, showing part of the third page. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/MS/02/076, SFL [4].

In June Severn began a letter to his sister Sarah, finishing it on 9 July 1821. References to Keats have now disappeared from his letters to his family for the moment, but they were still present in his letters to Keats’s friends as their thoughts turned to the design and erection of a suitable headstone for his grave.

My dear Sarah
The weather here is still cool and pleasant […] so that I will not go to Florence – but remain in Rome – and study from the divine pictures of Raphael – […] Assure yourself my dear Sarah that I am happy quiet – and with everything I can want – better off than I could be in in London – I think it a great providence I came here – I have most certainly been directed by God – it is wonderful to think on this wonderful change – how I am here amidst all my wishes […]
                                                                                      evermore your affectionate Brother

Extract from Joseph Severn’s letter to Sarah Severn, 6, 10, 16, 24, 25 June, 9 Jul 1821. Keats House, City of London. K/MS/02/076, SFL [5].

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