Printer-friendly versionSend by email
New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn, Edited by Grant Scott and Sue Brown
Letter 2


13, 14 August 1821

Wentworth Place, 13th Augt 1821

My dear Severn,

Your letter of 17th July arrived here on Saturday evening (11th), and this morning early I set off to your Sister, to learn all I could about your Picture.2 Unfortunately it is not yet come. From your Sister's I went to Newman Street to wait on Mr Bond,3 who, I found, could tell the latest news. There is an account of the Picture having been at Ancona, where I am afraid the Messenger, who was to take charge of it, was detained until he had received some despatches from Corfu. A letter from you dated 21st July reached your father last Friday.4 Under the circumstances, whatever could be done has been done. Your father on the 10th made a statement of the whole affair to the Council.5 It is certain the 10th was the last day for its reception. Hopes however are entertained. The letter from Lady Westmoreland6 to Sir T. Lawrence may do something, and the President we know is friendly to you. Many of the members of the Council have been urged to intercede in your behalf, among the rest Hilton,7 who promises well. I foresee that as your loss will be another's profit, much will depend on interest. Mr Bond is strenuous, & all your family pressing. Alas! neither I nor any of my friends possess any interest with these Academical gentry. I cannot believe Hilton would be so base as you suspect.8 There must be some guiltless mistake. I wrote to Taylor9 this morning, by private hand that it might reach him the sooner, stating your extreme anxiety, mentioning the cause of it, but without any suspicions, & asking him if he had any thing to say to you, — if so, I would forward it in this my letter, to be dispatched by to-morrow's post. I likewise told him, with your remembrance, that you were anxious for an answer to your letter.10 I shall keep this letter open for him till the last minute, but I do not think he will avail himself of the opportunity, — he would rather perhaps write himself, — he does not, as I have discovered within this short time, bear a very cordial disposition towards me, — but of that anon. I must correct an error that you have fallen into respecting Hilton. Those illiberal expressions concerning your prize picture were not used by Hilton, nor at his house, nor even in his presence; but by Hilton's friend De Wintd (or Windt, or what?) at Taylor's house.11 It is true we all imagined that Hilton was his anonymous authority. How deeply I regret this unlucky mistiming of a business in which your advantage is so essentially at stake, you must give me full credit for, — I cannot express it, and it is painful to dwell upon it. However, as affairs <last> stand, look to the worst. Believe that your pension is lost, and if the contrary happens to be the case, it will be a joy. And supposing it to be lost, let it not fret you. Take heart and laugh at an irreparable misfortune. I would do so were it my own case, better than if it were my friend's. Place your regret chiefly on the disappointment of others, and surely, with your abilities, you can put your shoulder cheerfully to the wheel, and retrieve the loss. I am a fit one to give you comfort on this score. Over and over again have I to Keats & others lamented your reliance on a band of Academicians, where there is nothing but envy, jealousy, intrigues, and squabbles, in preference to the pursuit of the art on your own account, independently, and at freedom from all conventional laws. You are ambitious to excel as an Historical Painter.12 God help you! — be the first portrait Painter in Europe, and be happy. The English like to be flattered, but in fact they are no enthusiasts in the art, — they neither understand it, nor are they generous enough to reward a man during his life. Now is the time to make choice of the right or left hand turning, — turn right in the name of worldly wisdom. The English are not worthy of the sacrifice of a man's whole life. Can you not read a lesson in the fate of our unhappy Keats? The English are too proud & selfish to acknowledge living merit. If you continue to study Portraits, both in miniature & in oil, crowds will be led by vanity to your door, & you be rich and at ease in your mind, but if you were to paint a work like the Transfiguration,13 lo! now, — you must be poor in purse, & (what is worse) poor in spirit, & kick your heels in a great man's antichamber, & be fevered thro' your life with broils and anxieties. Look to facts. Who has succeeded in historical painting since Sir J. Reynolds? None, save West,14 & he most undeservedly. I repeat the English understand it not. Think of this, my dear Severn, think of the choice you are now to make. Do not let hopes destroy your happiness. What was Sir T. Lawrence's advice?15 Surely it was wise. You are now the best miniature painter we have. This is no compliment; you know it yourself. Still you <do> need not debar yourself from the pursuit of the historical, — only make portraits your sheet anchor for profit and when your purse is swollen, sit down for awhile to the other.16 I could write a quire-full on this theme, — but enough. 14th Augt. If my memory does not deceive me, I have sent three letters since I received your last; one of them had a page filled by L. Hunt;17 none of them however are of late date. Mr Ewing18 has not yet called, nor sent the letter from you which I understand is in his hands; I shall be glad to see him. You asked Mr Taylor to consult with me about Keats' Epitaph,19 — or I believe to let you know what Epitaph I wished; he did not allow me to see that letter for a long time; I then talked to him about it, & he behaved as if he thought it was no concern of mine, changing the topic as soon as he could. It was not till the other day that I discovered he bears me no good will for claiming in return for MSS & information, a sight of his Memoir before it went to press. I confess I could not trust him entirely; now & then he is a mere bookseller, — somewhat vain of his talents, & consequently self willed; my anxiety for poor Keats' fame compelled me to make this request, — for, in my opinion, — Taylor neither comprehended him nor his poetry. I shall always be the first to acknowledge Taylor's kindness to Keats, — but towards me his conduct has been ungracious and even unmanly. Reynolds20 is the secret spring, — it is wished he should shine as the dear friend of poor Keats, — (at least I suspect so,) — when the fact <was> is he was no dear friend to Keats, nor did Keats think him so. This however might be borne, — but there are other points where I fear Taylor may do Keats an injustice, — not knowingly, but from the want of knowing his character. He has sent no answer to my yesterday's note. Either by the next or the next but one post I will write again, & give you my ideas of an Epitaph for our beloved Keats. The health of every one of your family is excellent, but they are sadly perplexed about this R. A. business. Mr Bond sends his remembrances, & desired me to say his brother is in better health, & will soon arrive here from Paris. Richards21 is well, & asks continually about you, — I shall insist upon his writing. I thank you for intrusting me with Keats' papers,22 — the sight of them will renew many painful thoughts. My next door neighbours are quite well; Miss B had been growing (I thought alarmingly) thin, but of late she has looked more cheerful, & better. I delivered your messages to them, & they sent some of the same nature. Do not imagine I am in a peevish mood about Taylor; to give my aid to a<ny> thing of so momentous a description as the fame of Keats without being satisfied on every point is more than I can do in duty to the memory of the dearest friend I ever had. Still I promised Taylor my aid, provided I might be allowed to approve or condemn in particular passages, which he assented to, & praised my solicitude; but lately I have heard that having got the chief things from me, he resolves to laugh at my opinion. I am afraid it will be made a job, — a mere trading job, — & that I will lend <to> no hand to, further than what I have done. You must feel with me that I should be culpable as Keats' friend even to run a risk. If Taylor choose, on my conditions, (which he himself has approved of), <to receive> my assistance <it> will be given most willingly. I heard yesterday that Clarke23 is thinking of writing a memoir, — to tell the truth I would rather join him, but at present I am (conditionally) promise bound. God bless you! my dear Severn,

& believe me,
     Your's truly, Chas Brown.


**Figure 3. Sitting Portrait of Joseph Severn, aged 29.

1 Printed: Sharp 108-110 with errors and omissions, and reproduced in Stillinger 84-87. Brown responds to Severn's letter of 17 July 1821 (Stillinger 77-81). Address: à / Joseph Severn Esqr / Poste Restante / à Rome / en Italie. / 14 Augt S. Isidoro No 43. Postmarks: SOHampstead; 2 py P.Paid; CHAMBERY; 3 SETTEMBRE; AU 14 1821; TWO PENNY P PAID. [Return to the letter]

2 Severn's "The Death of Alcibiades" was painted as the required submission for the Royal Academy's traveling fellowship for which winners of the RA Gold Medal were eligible. John Taylor had advised Severn on the basis of a conversation with William Hilton, Member of the RA, that the picture should be submitted in London in September (extracts only of Taylor's letter of 3 Apr. 1821 are printed in Sharp 99-100). Severn's youngest sister, Maria (b. 1797), however, saw a notice in the Academy setting a deadline of 10 August. Severn hurriedly dispatched the picture using the King's Messenger (Stillinger 77-81). It traveled by a circuitous route and failed to arrive in time. Severn half suspected Hilton of deliberately giving him misleading information on the submission date. [Return to the letter]

3 William Bond, the engraver to whom Severn was unhappily apprenticed for eight years. [Return to the letter]

4 Severn to James Severn, 21 July 1821 (SFL 7). [Return to the letter]

5 Though James Severn's letter does not survive in the RA Archive, the RA Council minutes for 30 August 1821 record that it was considered by them on that date. The Council deferred a decision on the traveling scholarship until Severn's picture arrived. [Return to the letter]

6 The wealthy Jane Huck-Saunders (1783-1857), lived apart from her husband, John Fane, tenth earl of Westmorland. Eccentric and controlling but cultivated and generous to artists, she was Severn's principal patron in his early years in Rome. Her letter to Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), President of the Royal Academy from 1820 to 1827, is not in the RA Archive. [Return to the letter]

7 William Hilton (1786-1839), history painter and portraitist, was a friend of Keats. He was elected an Associate of the RA in 1813 and full Member in 1820, becoming Keeper in charge of the RA Schools in 1827. He and the painter Peter de Windt (1784-1849), with whom he shared a house from 1802 to 1827, were two of the five friends of Keats who contributed £50 toward the cost of his journey to Italy in 1820. Severn's friend William Haslam asked Taylor and Hessey, Keats' publishers, to intervene with Hilton over Severn's lost picture. It was Hilton who suggested that James Severn write to the RA Council (KC, i. 262-3). [Return to the letter]

8 Severn's suspicions of Hilton derived from a story Keats told him in Rome about a dinner he attended shortly after Severn had won the Gold Medal in 1820, at which Hilton was also present. See Introduction, par. 12. [Return to the letter]

9 John Taylor (1781-1864), together with his partner James A. Hessey, published Keats' last two volumes of poetry and put together the financial settlement which enabled Keats to go to Rome. He kept in regular touch there with Severn who, however, asked Brown to approach Taylor in order to use his influence with Hilton (Stillinger 79). Although he was not on good terms with Taylor, Brown obliged (Stillinger 83-4). [Return to the letter]

10 Severn to Taylor, 16 May 1821 (KC, i. 247-50). [Return to the letter]

11 This alternative version of the dinner party at which Severn was traduced was probably the result of a hurried conversation with Taylor. Taylor had indeed hosted a dinner party in November 1819 at which de Windt and Keats were present, but although "The Cave of Despair" was then on display at the RA it had not yet won the Gold Medal. Despite all Hilton's kindness to Severn in 1820 and 1821, Severn quickly reverted to his old suspicions of him. [Return to the letter]

12 Orthodox Academy teaching derived from Sir Joshua Reynolds put history painting at the top of a hierarchy of genres with portrait painting well below. [Return to the letter]

13 At the time, Raphael's "Transfiguration" in the Vatican was widely thought of as the finest of all paintings. [Return to the letter]

14 Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), served as first President of the RA from 1790 to 1792, followed by Sir Benjamin West (1738-1820) from 1792 to 1820. West was appointed the Historical Painter for George III in 1772. [Return to the letter]

15 Presumably given in September 1820 when Severn paid the customary call on Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the new President of the Academy, before his sudden departure for Italy with Keats. [Return to the letter]

16 Portrait painting was often seen in this period as a money-spinner which would enable an artist to pursue his true bent in other genres, in the way Brown suggests. [Return to the letter]

17 See 9 March 1821. The memorable letter by Leigh Hunt to Severn of 8 Mar. 1821 is written on the outside. See Sharp 87-88 and 86-87. [Return to the letter]

18 William Ewing, a young English sculptor and ivory carver, who had lodgings in Piazza di Spagna and helped Severn nurse Keats. He returned to England in May 1821 but came back to Rome in 1823 where he remained. [Return to the letter]

19 Severn to Taylor, 16 May 1821 (KC, i. 250). [Return to the letter]

20 John Hamilton Reynolds (1794-1852), poet and lawyer. He was indeed Keats' closest friend from 1816 to 1818, after which Keats fell increasingly under the influence of Brown and became obsessed with Fanny Brawne, of whom Reynolds disapproved. [Return to the letter]

21 Thomas Richards (d. 1831), civil servant, theater critic and a close friend of Brown in London. His brother Charles printed Keats' 1817 Poems. [Return to the letter]

22 Taylor had asked Severn to send him the poet's surviving papers to help with a memoir of Keats he was proposing to write (Sharp 99-100). Although Severn promised to do so (KC, i. 249), in the end he sent them to Brown, leaving it to Brown to decide whether they should be forwarded to Taylor (Stillinger 78). [Return to the letter]

23 Charles Cowden Clarke (1787-1875), the son of Keats' schoolmaster John Clarke at Enfield, and a close friend of Keats in his early years. Though he published an anonymous letter in The Morning Post of 27 July 1821 defending Keats and gave Richard Monckton Milnes some vivid recollections of the young Keats ("Biographical Notes on Keats," 16 Mar. 1846 [KC, ii. 146-153]), it was not until 1861 that Clarke wrote a short memoir published as "Recollections of Keats" (Atlantic Monthly 7 [Jan. 1861]: 86-100). This, in turn, inspired Severn's "On the Vicissitudes of Keats's Fame," also published in the Atlantic Monthly (11 [April 1863]: 401-407). [Return to the letter]

Published @ RC

December 2007