Nightingale by the Pyramid

Next to Little Henry


Any Englishman with more than two good GCSEs(Grade C) while in Rome is  forced to visit the grave of” he whose name was writ on water”, John Keats. He had travelled in 1820 to the warmer city in a desperate attempt of save himself from his crippling  tuberculosis. He arrived mid November but died after a tragic few months  on 23 February 1821. He was 24.

Next to him with a similar stone was his companion in that tragic blood soaked dance with death, Joseph Severn. I have visited that grave on several  occasions and even this black heart can never fail to be moved. But what of Severn?

While others  such as Leigh Hunt ducked  going with Keats to Rome-the voyage took two months because of quarantine regulations- Severn an RA trained painter agreed to go. In doing so he broke irrevocability with his father, A year earlier he had painted Keats and had won a travelling scholarship from the RA. His letters in the three months of tortuous nursing are an evocative statement of literal blood brotherhood..

Take the one written in Febuary 1821.”On the 23rd at 4 he said Severn-lift me I am dying-I shall die easy-don’t be frightened-thank God it has come. I lifted him in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat and increased until 11 when he gradually slipped into death-so quiet-that I thought he slept”

For Keats it was a blessed relief ,he had ached for the calm of that sleep and at one time was angry with Severn for denying him a short cut with laudanum.

Severn made a good living as a painter in Rome for the next twenty years, being collected by among others,William Gladstone. His reputation was helped by Shelley’s preface to his Elegy to Keats, Adonais where he recognised the painter’s heroic efforts on behalf of his fellow poet. When Shelley drowns in his pocket was a copy of Keats poems. Mick Jagger read some of the 495 lines of Adonais  at the famous Hyde Park concert in 1969 after the death of  Brian Jones.

“Peace, peace, he is not dead,he doth sleep/He hath awakened from the dream of life”

Severn had seven children , three who became  artists and one who died as an infant has a small stone next to his in the Protestant Cemetery. He returned to England but didnt do well ,having to flee to Jersey to escape  creditors. In 1861 he was appointed British Consul to Rome when the French were  defending the city and the Vatican against the unification of Italy. It was a difficult and controversial role which he by all accounts performed well. He retired in 1873 and died in 1879 aged 86.

This link shows a selection of his paintings many which were exhibited at the Royal Academy.


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