Keats and Constable in Hampstead

Keats and Constable in Hampstead
In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an improvement in her health. They took tenancy of Albion Cottage in what was to be the first of their summer migrations. A year or two earlier, a young recently qualified medical practitioner and his younger brother moved into lodgings nearby. Qualifying in medicine by first serving an apprenticeship as an apothecary and then completing a couple of years of hospital training had not been easy, especially with the added distraction of being a published poet with a developing reputation. His younger brother, as it turned out was suffering from tuberculosis and, even though he was a doctor, he was unable to do anything other than nurse him and comfort him in the face of the inevitable. Following his bereavement a friend asked him to share lodgings, also in Hampstead, and they moved into Wentworth House together.

This cast of characters brought together by infirmity and loss in the summer of 1819 proved to be a productive period for the two principals. The painter was John Constable—then around 43 years—and the doctor/poet, John Keats, 23. This was the summer Constable walked Hampstead Heath sketching many of his cloud studies and completing a number of works, notably Hampstead Heath with the house called The Salt Box. This large painting is a view of the Heath from a vantage point close to Albion Cottage, their summer home. Perhaps on one of Constable’s walks on the Heath with his sketchbook and bag of materials he encountered a young poet with his notebook, musing and listening to the song of a nightingale as dusk approached on a warm evening. Constable might also have seen Keats and his friend Charles Dilke engaged in the more prosaic pastime of ‘shooting tom-tits’ (John Keats, Robert Gittings, Pelican Biographies, 1971, p325).

There must have been many occasions when the two could have met. Keats had been introduced to Benjamin Haydon, a painter, at an explosive sounding dinner party together with Leigh Hunt, Shelley and another of Keats’ friends John Severn. (It was Severn who accompanied Keats to Rome in 1820, nursed him through his final few weeks and held him as he succumbed to tuberculosis. Severn was buried—at his own request—next to Keats in the Cimitero Acattolico, Rome.) Haydon, much older than Keats, was renowned as a loud, bombastic and opinionated man but there was something about the young poet that intrigued him such that he developed ‘a special proprietorial interest in Keats’ and indeed sketched him. Haydon was certainly drawn to the much younger, highly gifted, quiet and not at all argumentative poet. It is also likely that Haydon knew Constable—how well we don’t know—as their time at the Royal Academy overlapped, Haydon being some 10 years younger that Constable, who was a late starter. Constable was exhibiting at the RA at the end of his time as a student so Haydon, still a student, would have seen his paintings and met him. Haydon, for all his perceived faults, was an extraordinary man who, among his other achievements, was partly responsible for the purchase of the Elgin Marbles but whose legacy as a painter is overshadowed by his more famous Autobiography and Memoirs. Such as his accomplishments were, they were insufficient to prevent his imprisonment for debt and subsequent suicide. Haydon, a gregarious figure around in Hampstead at this time who collected around him other famous writers, poets and artists, may well have included his more famous contemporary at the RA in one of his gatherings. Sadly, there is no record of any contact between them at this time. But we do now that in the summer of 1819 both Constable and Keats will have spent a lot of time walking, looking, sketching and writing. This is the year in which Constable produced The Salt Box, the year he exhibited The White Horse, the first ‘six-footer’ canal scene, and the year he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. It was also the year of an extraordinary burst of creativity for John Keats. He wrote the ‘six great odes’, including the Ode to a Nightingale. We don’t know in what order Keats composed the Odes, and it probably doesn’t matter, but I want to believe that he and Constable heard the same nightingale; that they saw the same rainbow, the same cloud formations; that they bumped into each other several times on the Heath and perhaps nodded good morning or good evening as they passed each other and passed into greatness. Two of England’s geniuses spent that summer in the same place and we’ll never know if they met.

© Don Oldham 2018

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