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Severn, Josephlocked

  • David Kaloustian

Joseph Severn (1793–1879)

self-portrait, c. 1820

Severn, Joseph (1793–1879), painter, was born on 7 December 1793 at Hoxton, the eldest of the six children of James Severn, a musician whose family originally settled on the banks of the Severn River in Gloucestershire, and his wife, whose maiden name was Littel, and whose family were descended from Huguenots. Severn's parents were a study in contrast: his mother, whom Severn idolized all through his life, often calling her his 'angel mother' (Birkenhead, 2), had an even disposition, while his father was often irascible and demanding. His quick temper notwithstanding, it was reportedly his father who discovered and encouraged in his eldest and favourite son a talent for pictorial art after seeing a profile of himself drawn by the precocious five-year-old. When Joseph turned fourteen his father, in order to encourage further his talent and bolster his professional prospects, had him apprenticed to William Bond, an engraver who offered favourable terms for the apprenticeship. Although initially delighted with the prospect, when it became apparent to the novice that he was no longer progressing in his knowledge or artistic technique, Joseph became bored and resentful towards his master. Much to the consternation of his father, who argued for the worthiness of the engraver's profession, the maturing young Severn often complained bitterly about his situation and often threatened to quit. As Severn was nearing his majority, Bond, fearing the defection of his able apprentice, relented and allowed him more personal time. Severn enrolled in evening art classes at the Royal Academy Schools in 1813, where he later studied under Fuseli. Severn threw himself into his studies of art and literature and painted miniature portraits on the side for small commissions.

Friendship with Keats

It was towards the end of his bondage to Bond—no later than the late summer or early autumn of 1816—that Severn was introduced to Keats, probably by William Haslam. Severn was welcomed into the Keats circle, attended the 'immortal dinner' at Benjamin Robert Haydon's in 1817, and in 1818 painted portraits of all three of the Keats brothers, as well as of Haslam and John Hamilton Reynolds. He was especially drawn to Keats and, though somewhat shy about it, and feeling his inferior, often sought his company. Keats encouraged Severn in his oil painting 'The Cave of Despair', which depicted a scene from Spenser's Faerie Queene (book 1, canto 10). This was just his second attempt in the medium of oils, but Severn intended to enter the picture in the Royal Academy's student competition for the gold medal in painting, a prize that had not been awarded for over a decade because the submissions were poor. Though hampered in his efforts by miserable lodgings, and otherwise occupied with the miniatures he painted for money, Severn laboured long and hard and finally submitted his painting on 31 October 1819. To the astonishment of everyone, including himself, Severn won the prize on 10 December 1819. Besides the gold medal, the award brought with it not only excellent publicity in Severn's case for his budding business in miniatures but also entitlement to compete for the coveted travelling scholarship. But Severn's next decision, a momentous one, was to throw all of this into jeopardy—or so it seemed.

Severn had consoled Keats when he found out in the autumn of 1818 that Keats's brother Tom was dying of consumption (tuberculosis) and even offered to relieve Keats at Tom's bedside. After Tom's death on 1 December 1818, Severn and Keats spent more time together when Keats was in London. Keats's annus mirabilis (beginning in autumn 1818) was also something of a breakthrough year for Severn. But in 1820 things took a turn for the worse. Severn's winning the Royal Academy prize not only brought no new commissions but also aroused such intense jealousy from his fellow students at the academy that Severn discontinued his art classes there. Then, in February 1820, Keats, whose health had been indifferent for some time, discovered the unmistakable sign of his having contracted tuberculosis. He resolved, on doctor's advice, to go to Italy in hopes of convalescing in the favourable climate. The only problem was, as Haslam explained to Severn, that no one could be found to go with Keats. George Keats was in America, Charles Brown was on a walking tour and could not be contacted, and everyone else, including Haslam, whose wife was pregnant, had other obligations. When, on 12 September 1820, Haslam asked Severn if he would go, Severn impulsively agreed to accompany Keats and hurriedly made arrangements to depart on the Maria Crowther bound for Italy on 17 September. After hearing of his son's decision, Severn's father was so enraged that he knocked Joseph to the ground and attempted to bar him from leaving. Severn persisted in his resolution to accompany his friend, however, and it is solely from him, as a result, that there exists an account of Keats's last days. (It must be noted, though, that Severn was a notoriously unreliable source; the three separate 'reminiscences' that he wrote over the course of his life, as well as diary entries, letters, and testimonials related in the 1840s to Monckton Milnes, Keats's biographer, are often inconsistent and even contradictory.)

The passage to Italy on the small Maria Crowther was a trying one for the young men, as they had to endure five weeks of cramped quarters, poor provisions, a fellow passenger apparently dying of consumption, and stormy weather before they finally arrived on 21 October at the Bay of Naples, where they were forced to undergo a further debilitating ten-day quarantine. The pair left for Rome on 8 November and took up residence at 26 piazza di Spagna (now the Keats–Shelley House). The English physician Dr James Clark, whose services had been requested by Taylor and Hessey, Keats's publishers, had arranged for the rooms for the young men. It was there that Keats, faithfully attended by Severn, lived out the one hundred days remaining to him.

Once in Rome, Keats began to feel a little better and encouraged Severn to take advantage of the respite by availing himself of the city's magnificent artworks, which Severn did with great relish. He also began to work on his entry for the academy's travelling scholarship. The terms of entry included that the work had to be on a historical subject, and so Severn decided to paint 'The Death of Alcibiades'. But Keats had another relapse in mid-December and Severn was forced to abandon his painting and attend to him day and night. Keats had another period of better health at the end of the year and into January, so that Severn actually wrote to Mrs Brawne in a letter postmarked 11 January 1821 that he hoped that Keats would be able to come back to England with him that spring. But that was wishful thinking, for it was also on this date that Severn made his famous deathbed sketch of Keats, and it became apparent within a few days' time that Keats was not going to recover. Severn's accounts of Keats's final days emphasize the great suffering of his friend until the very end was imminent, at which point, avers Severn, Keats seemed to find peace. Keats died in Severn's arms on 23 February 1821. James Clark saw to most of the details of Keats's funeral and burial in the protestant cemetery because Severn was too exhausted from his ordeal of helping Keats into 'easeful Death'. It was another two years before Severn had erected at his own expense Keats's headstone with the famous epitaph that Keats had requested him to have inscribed: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. Severn meant to honour Keats's dying wish with respect to his epitaph, but unfortunately, in consultation with Brown, he ended up diluting the sublime simplicity of this statement with a clumsy explanatory preamble meant to soften its intended cynicism.

While modern opinion is divided as to the purity of Severn's motives in accompanying Keats to Rome, Severn's contemporaries seemed convinced of his overall altruism in the matter, and Victorian sentiment inclined in this direction as well. Despite their argument about Christianity at Leigh Hunt's early in 1818, Shelley (whose funeral about a year and a half after Keats's Severn also attended) bestowed the highest praise on Severn in the preface to Adonais (1821), concluding his notice of Severn's aid to Keats with the following: 'His conduct is a golden augury of the success of his future career—may the unextinguished Spirit of his illustrious friend animate the creations of his pencil, and plead against Oblivion for his name'. Some later commentators of a more demythologizing propensity, however, suggest that Severn might have been from the outset more self-interested in accompanying Keats to Rome than he wished to appear to posterity. They suggest that Severn was a social climber who intended to augment his own prestige through his association with Keats as well as to make connections in the flourishing art scene in Rome. While it is true that Severn profited from his friendship with Keats and that he tended to exaggerate his own importance in the chronicle of this period, his faithful devotion to Keats in the last days of the poet's life is not to be doubted, nor is it much sullied by his later efforts at self-promotion.

Artistic career and marriage

After Keats's death, Severn, who really had no prospects for income and who had become saddled with paying back the costs of Keats's final illness, including the cost of room furnishings, which authorities had burnt (fearing contagion), moved to less expensive quarters at 18 via di San Isodoro, not too far from the piazza di Spagna. There, still grieving for Keats, he reverted his attention to his painting for the Royal Academy fellowship, the deadline of which was fast approaching. By mid-March a steady stream of well-wishers who had heard of his selfless nursing of Keats began to pay him visits. Thus his association with Keats helped him into artistic and genteel coteries, and since a number of his visitors were in a position to help Severn with commissions for portraits and other work, his professional prospects rose as well.

Severn finished 'The Death of Alcibiades' for all intents and purposes by the end of May 1821, put some finishing touches to it over the next few months, and sent it off to the Royal Academy in August. He experienced no little anxiety as the painting went missing for months, but it was finally discovered to have been mislaid at the Royal Academy itself. Severn, who had no competitors, was duly awarded the travelling pension of £130 p.a. for three years and also received £80 for his travelling expenses to Italy.

In September 1821 Severn, who was rapidly becoming known in English circles in Rome both for his painting and his exuberant and winning personality, was introduced to Lady Westmorland, who became his patroness of sorts. It was through her that Severn met his future wife at the end of 1824. Elizabeth Montgomerie (d. 1862), daughter of General Lord Archibald Montgomerie (d. 1814), was the ward of Lady Westmorland, but was unhappy in that situation because of Lady Westmorland's tyrannical ways. Anticipating that Lady Westmorland would oppose their union, the two kept their growing intimacy secret from her and revealed their wedding plans only at the last minute. Joseph Severn and Elizabeth Montgomerie were married on 5 October 1828 in Florence, and though she did give the bride away, Lady Westmorland severed all relations with the couple thereafter.

The first three years of marriage were clouded by a fraudulent lawsuit (it was eventually dismissed) that forced Severn to expend rather large sums of money. Although Severn had been industrious over the previous six years and had built up for himself a steady clientele for his pictures, and despite the fact that his wife had an allowance from her half-brother Lord Eglinton, the money just seemed to slip away, and so the couple were forced to delay their return to England. Children also began appearing on the scene. In summer 1829 Claudia, the first of six children, was born, followed by Walter Severn, Ann Mary [see Newton, (Ann) Mary], and Henry Augustus. Although Severn was a highly respected and sought after artist in Rome, the family moved back to England in March 1841, ostensibly for the education of the children. They moved into an accommodating old house at 21 James Street at Buckingham Gate, and in the following August Elizabeth had twins—Arthur and Eleanor. Three of the Severn children (Walter, Arthur, and Ann Mary) became artists, and eventually Ann Mary's reputation as a painter eclipsed her father's.

Severn did not find it as easy to make a living in London. He entered a cartoon competition sponsored by Westminster Hall in 1843, but his was not selected to be one of those executed in fresco. He tried his hand at various other media (including decorative arts and magazine illustrations) and even thought about returning to his trade in miniatures, but they were out of vogue. So he turned to other projects. During the 1840s he helped Monckton Milnes (later Lord Houghton) on his biography of Keats and even tried his own hand at writing. He wrote essays—one on Keats appeared in the Atlantic Monthly—short stories, a historical romance, and there is even supposedly a lost novel on Titian using Keats as the model for the artist-protagonist, but writing was not his forte. Although the Severn family managed to get by on Elizabeth's allowance despite the relative scarcity of new commissions of any type, it became apparent that they could no longer afford the house at Buckingham Gate and so they moved to a more affordable house off Belgrave Road.

British consul at Rome

In 1860 Charles Thomas Newton, who married Severn's daughter Ann Mary in 1861, resigned the consulship at Rome, and, probably at his suggestion, Severn applied for the position. Despite being a sprightly sixty-seven, Severn was in legal terms too old for the position, but thanks to the support of William Gladstone, Lord Houghton, John Ruskin, and especially Baron von Bunsen, as well as the concealment as far as possible of his real age, he was elected to the post anyway. He assumed the consulate in 1861; his wife, who was to conclude the family's affairs in London and then follow Joseph to Rome, died in transit, at Marseilles, in April 1862.

Despite the death of his wife, Severn was once again in his element in Rome. He revisited the grave of his poet friend and wrote that he was flooded with bittersweet memories every time he walked the steps of the piazza di Spagna. In his post as British consul he became something of a crusader against papal injustices, and despite his sometimes overestimating his own importance and straying into matters better left to ambassadorial compass, his overall goodwill often had a salutary effect in mediations on behalf of both English and Italians who had run afoul of papal law. Although Odo Russell, the unofficial British minister to the Vatican, characterized Severn soon after his arrival at Rome as a 'good natured goose, utterly unfit and unqualified for his post', some ten years later he wrote to Lord Granville that 'Patiently listened to, judiciously advised, kindly treated and carefully managed, Severn became a willing, useful and even energetic agent during the ten years we worked together in Rome' (Blakiston, 330). Severn resigned his consulship in 1872, receiving for his troubles a pension of £80 and a further £60 from the civil fund. He continued painting until almost the end of his life, often taking Keatsiana for his subjects, and though his fame as a painter has not stood the test of time, his many depictions of Keats and his circle continue to be widely viewed. In his later years he also planned, but never executed, a folio edition of Shelley's Adonais, to be illustrated by himself and his sons Walter and Arthur. He attended the unveiling of the memorial tablet on the Keats House in February 1879, and was there eulogized by Sir Vincent Eyre.

Severn died in Rome of natural causes on 3 August 1879 and was buried the next day in the new protestant cemetery, but at the intercession of Sir Vincent Eyre, Lord Houghton, and others, his remains were exhumed two years later and fittingly reinterred beside those of Keats. Though many were the suggestions submitted for his epitaph (including ones by Rossetti and Tennyson) it was Lord Houghton's that was chosen; the inscription begins, 'To the Memory of Joseph Severn, Devoted Friend and Death-bed Companion of John Keats, Whom He Lived to See Numbered Among the Immortal Poets of England' (Birkenhead, 280).


  • S. Birkenhead, Illustrious friends: the story of Joseph Severn and his son Arthur (1965)
  • H. E. Rollins, The Keats circle, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1965)
  • W. J. Bate, John Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1963)
  • A. Ward, John Keats: the making of a poet, rev. edn (New York, 1986)
  • R. Gitting, John Keats (1968)
  • J. Ruskin, Praeterita (1990)
  • N. Blakiston, ‘Joseph Severn, consul in Rome, 1861–1871’, History Today, 18 (May 1968), 329–36, 68
  • M. Pointon, ‘Keats, Joseph Severn and William Hilton: notes on a dispute’, N&Q, 218 (1973), 49–54
  • C. A. Brown, Life of John Keats, ed. D. H. Bodurtha and W. B. Pope (1937)
  • J. Richardson, Keats and his circle: an album of portraits (1980)
  • W. Sharp, ‘The portraits of Keats; with special reference to those painted by Severn’, Century Magazine, 71/4 (Feb 1906), 535–51
  • J. E. Walsh, Darkling I listen: the last days and death of John Keats (New York, 1999)
  • W. H. Bond, L. Morriss, and H. Vendler, John Keats, 1795–1995, with a catalogue of the Harvard Keats collection (1995)
  • Lord Brock [R. Claude, Baron Brock], John Keats and Joseph Severn: the tragedy of the last illness, Keats and Shelley Memorial Association (1973)
  • J. Keats, The Keats letters, papers and other relics (1972)
  • A. Severn, The professor: Arthur Severn's memoir of John Ruskin (1967)
  • A. Lowell, John Keats, 2 vols. (Boston and New York, 1925)
  • R. M. Milnes [Lord Houghton], Life, letters, and literary remains of John Keats (New York, 1848)
  • Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, ed. H. B. Forman (1878)


  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp., drawings, and papers
  • Princeton University, New Jersey
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44356–44527, passim
  • Keats House, Hampstead, London, letters to family members, incl. some relating to paintings at Keats House
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Odo Russell, FO 918
  • V&A NAL, letters to C. R. Leslie


  • J. Severn, self-portrait, pencil drawing, 1820, NPG [see illus.]
  • S. Kirkup, pencil drawing, 1822, repro. in Sharp, Life and letters, title-page
  • J. Severn, self-portrait, pencil drawing, 1822, repro. in Richardson, Keats, 104
  • J. Partridge, pencil drawing, 1825, NPG; repro. in Richardson, Keats, 104
  • photograph, 1872, repro. in Richardson, Keats, 106
  • J. Severn, self-portrait, oils?, 1876, repro. in Richardson, Keats, 107
Notes and Queries
M. Bryan, , 2 vols. (1816); new edn, ed. G. Stanley (1849); repr. new edn, ed. R. E. Graves & W. Armstrong, 2 vols. (1886–9); [4th edn], ed. G. C. Williamson, 5 vols. (1903–5) [various reprs.]