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New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn, Edited by Grant Scott and Sue Brown
Letter 25

TO JOSEPH SEVERN1

17 November 1827

Florence. 17 Novr 1827.

My dear Severn,

I don’t know what devil it was that withheld me from writing to you earlier. I thought I had not received your letter2 above ten days, but upon referring to it, I find it is three weeks old. As it must have been some devil that deceived me, I dare not venture on offering an apology, since it must necessarily be a diabolical one.

The account you give of your goings-on in painting interests me, delights me. Would I could see them all! I particularly like the management of the scene for Rizzio’s murder. Lady W. ought to be a painter herself.3 It not only pleases me, but every body. Kirkup was much struck by it; and Landor was vehement in its praise. I can’t say so much for your notion of a "Revelation" picture.4 You indeed foresaw that I should set up my back against it; but, know further, that both Kirkup and Landor shake their heads at it. A woman standing on the moon was very good sense in St John’s time, when no one believed it so big as the Pantheon; but Newton and others have made nonsense of it, — unless the said woman is proportionably less than a mite on a large Cheshire cheese. Besides, supposing that difficulty overcome, what is the picture? It will have no intelligible story, not even by reference to the original; it will have nothing of sentiment, nothing in which we can sympathise; — it will have nothing but your good painting — thrown away. Then you talk of making it a large picture; that will be a larger evil. The old mania, I perceive, is on you for large pictures. Even if it were small, folks would not like it, being a scripture-piece; those who think of scripture as I do, will certainly prefer other subjects; and those who are devotees may take offence at its <handling> treatment, or object to it on their walls from anti-popish motives. There is more of religious feeling, among protestants, against sacred pictures, than you seem to be aware of. Remark, that no commissions are given for them. Two or three may show their faces every year in the Exhibition in London; perhaps not so many.. If you choose to give a commission to yourself, it is another matter, — then every man to his own taste. Thanks for your pen and ink sketch of the lady and the orange-girls.5 I can perfectly make out the composition, and I like it much. The lady, of course, will appear unconscious of their listening; that is, she will not be playing to them; otherwise it will be a parody on Orpheus playing to the brutes, — an Orphea playing to the beauties. I have no doubt but that your "Fountain" will be a beautiful picture; but as I don’t know the particulars of it, I can’t play the critic on that, as I have on the others.

You ask me for all the circumstances relating to Louisa’s death. I thought I had told you enough.6 The facts were that Hayter wished to turn away the servant maid, and place a mistress of his in her stead. She would not permit such an insult to her, so undisguised. Upon this he resolved to send her back to England, with her younger child.7 The day for her departure was fixed, and on the preceding day, early in the morning, she swallowed arsenic, which she had brought with her, and had in her possession four years. Immediately after swallowing it, she repented, and screamed out for assistance, owing, (it is said,) to her children’s having run up to her at the moment. It is however common for [some?]8 persons to repent immediately after taking poison; as then their worldly sorrows are, in imagination, at an end, and nothing but the horror of death is in their minds. Remedies were applied, two physicians attended, but all was in vain. She was dying for about twelve hours.9 Ri was there, for they were great friends together. Whether Hayter intends to leave Florence, or hopes to brave it out, we have not heard. He has been a good deal in the country. There appears to be no abatement of the feeling against him, and I should think it improbable that he be readmitted into society here. Previously he had made several persons averse to him, owing to his airs and presumption, — me among the rest. He has an indiscreet friend living with him,10 — such a one is worse than a clever enemy on such an occasion. This friend talks too much and too carelessly of the matter. The last we heard, through him, as a good joke, was that their man-cook had become so crack-brained, from a dread of ghosts in the house, that they were obliged to send him away; then, as he went out of the house, he turned round, pointing at Hayter, and said in a solemn voice, "Sir, these things can’t go on long! You will die, and will die very soon! — and poison will also be your end!" This, so sounding like a prophecy, it was added, alarmed Hayter. One good step was taken; they promised not to beat the black-boy any more, upon which he returned to their house.

At present I am very busy in reading Goldoni.11 I have bought the best edition, on the best paper, in 33 vols. I have already read twenty of his comedies. You must know, I not only read, but study him; and I write a short notice on every comedy as I finish it, which will serve me hereafter as a useful memorandum, and possibly may be turned to another account as well. Goldoni is a delightful dramatist, when he has a good subject, and writes in his best style. Sometimes, however, he is unaccountably dull, mawkish, and sermonising: I always had a decided taste for the drama and painting. The latter was thwarted till it was too late. As I wrote a bad tragedy before I was sixteen, and an Opera,12 absolutely worth nothing more than the £300 they gave me for it, at the age of twenty one, I am willing to believe that the drama was my first love. It is certain that I understand nothing else in the world so well. My inclinations are constantly leading me that way. Now Goldoni with all his invention seems to have set mine on fire. I’ll do something, and perhaps I’ll begin by stealing from him.

Kirkup sends remembrances. He hopes Lady W.13 has received the chair. When you are at leisure I know he will be obliged to you to send his things.

Pray remember me properly to Captn Baynes, Gibson, Eastlake, and all our mutual friends.

Your’s most truly,
           Chas Brown.

Notes

1 Above the salutation Sharp has penciled, "644-6." Address: Al Pittore Inglese / Il Sig. Giuseppe Severn, / No 22 Vicolo de’ Marroniti, / Roma. Postmarks: FIRENZE; 19 NOVE{MBRE}. [Return to the letter]

2An undated fragment of Severn’s letter survives at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome (Box 1: 16). It describes the sketch of the lady and the orange-girls Brown mentions below. In Nostrand’s edition the fragment is combined with another fragmentary letter from Severn to Brown, and both are presented as a single letter. The recipient is incorrectly given as C. W. Dilke (Nostrand 221) following the description in the Catalog of Books and Manuscripts at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1969) 647, though here it is bracketed. The confusion probably stems from the fact that at one time the two letters were mounted together in a single frame and thus difficult to read. See 29 Mar. 1828, n2. [Return to the letter]

3 Lady Westmorland had commissioned from Severn a painting of "Mary Queen of Scots listening to David Rizzio’s Music" (Severn to James Severn, 4 Dec. 1827 [SFL 37]). Despite the enthusiasm of Brown, Kirkup and Landor for the subject, there is no evidence that Severn ever painted it. [Return to the letter]

4 Severn’s altar piece, "The Infant of the Apocalypse Caught up to Heaven," inspired by Chap. 12 of The Book of Revelation, is now in the Art Gallery at the Church of San Paolo fuore le Mure in Rome. Severn got a commission to do the work from Cardinal Weld who planned to present it to the Pope. Severn did not succeed in getting it hung in San Paolo fuori le Mure until 1841 (Scott 660-661). [Return to the letter]

5 A preparatory sketch for Severn’s "Villa d’Este," which he describes in his letter to Brown. See note 2 above and Nostrand 221. [Return to the letter]

6 See 23 Oct. 1827. [Return to the letter]

7 Louisa had two children by Hayter, Angelo Collen Hayter (1819-1898) and Louisa Hayter (b. 1824). [Return to the letter]

8 Here Brown uses an illegible symbol. [Return to the letter]

9 For Hayter’s own account of these events, see his remarkable letter of 24 Dec. 1827 to the Duke of Bedford, transcribed in Barbara Bryant’s "Sir George Hayter’s Drawings at Duncombe Park" Apollo 135 (1992): 246-49. [Return to the letter]

10 Mr. Charles Hamilton. [Return to the letter]

11 Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), Venetian author of more than 150 plays in Italian, French and the Venetian dialect. Brown wrote a critical study of Goldoni’s work, now lost (Stillinger 19). [Return to the letter]

12 Brown’s comic opera, "Narensky," was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre in January 1814 and ran for ten nights. This statement by Brown suggests that the opera was written a year earlier than previously thought (see Stillinger 4). [Return to the letter]

13 Lady Westmorland, with whom Kirkup was particularly close. [Return to the letter]

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