Sue Young Histories

Joseph Severn 1793 – 1879

September 27, 2008

Joseph Severn 1793 –  1879 was an English portrait and subject painter and a personal friend of the famous English poet John Keats.

**Joseph Severn** exhibited portraits, Italian genre, literary and biblical subjects and a selection of his paintings can today be found in some of the most important and renowned museums in London including the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Britain.

Joseph Severn was a ’mutual friend’ of Frederick Hervey Foster Quin and Thomas Uwins. Joseph Severn painted the famous portrait of Frederick Hervey Foster Quin, Richard Westmacott and William Etty playing cards in Naples in 1823.

Joan Severn, the daughter in law of Joseph Severn, was a cousin of John Ruskin, and she consulted Mrs. Wagstaff.

In 1815 Joseph Severn was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited his first work in oil, Hermia and Helena, a subject from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1819.

He first met the poet John Keats in 1816.

In 1819, Severn was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Academy for his painting Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cave of Despair which was inspired by the epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. It was the first time the prize had been awarded in eight years and the painting was exhibited at the Academy in 1820. This award also allowed Severn to apply for a three years’ travelling studentship, paid for by the Royal Academy.

According to a biography of Severn, published by Grant F Scott in 2005, Severn had an illegitimate child shortly before leaving England for Italy.

On 17 September 1820, Severn sailed on board the ship Maria Crowther from England to Italy with the famous English poet John Keats.

John Keats and Severn had already known one another in England, but they were only passing acquaintances, yet it was Severn who agreed to accompany him to Rome when all others could, or would, not. They arrived in Rome on 15 November 1820. The trip was supposed to cure John Keats’s lingering illness, which he suspected was tuberculosis, however his friends and several doctors disagreed and urged him to spend some time in a warm climate. In Rome they both lived in an apartment at number 26 Piazza di Spagna, just on the right side of the world famous Spanish Steps.

Severn had left England against his father’s wishes, without much money and had no idea of the severity of John Keats’s condition. While in Rome during the winter of 1820-21, Severn wrote numerous letters about John Keats to their mutual friends in England. Severn’s letters are the considered the definitive account of the poet’s final months and are used as the primary historical source for scholars of John Keats final months of life. Selections from them are often present in biographies of John Keats.

Severn nursed John Keats in Italy until his death in February 1821, three months after having both arrived there. Severn’s troubles were noted and understood by John Keats himself, and he was later thanked for his devotion to John Keats by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the preface to his pastoral elegy named Adonais which was written for John Keats in 1821.

In 1861 Joseph Severn was appointed British consul in Rome, a post which he held till 1872, and during a great part of the time he also acted as Italian consul. He was often at odds with the UK government at home and only narrowly escaped being sacked. He eventually retired as consul in 1872. Severn died in August 1879 at the age of 85 and a half, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery right next to John Keats. Both graves are still standing today.