The Keats-Shelley Memorial House is a ‘writer’s home museum’ in honour of John Keats, who spent the last four months of his life there between November 1820 and February 1821. The Memorial House also honours Keats’ contemporary and friend, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who spent time in Rome while living for some years in Italy. Both Keats and Shelley are buried in Rome’s ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’.
The Keats Connection
John Keats was advised to seek a warmer climate for the sake of his health. After various delays, Keats finally left England by ship in September 1820, accompanied by his artist friend, Joseph Severn. They landed at Naples, Italy in October, and arrived in Rome on 14 November.
It had already been arranged for Dr James Clark to attend Keats, and Dr Clark had taken rooms for them on the second floor of the building at number 26, Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Their landlady, Anna Angeletti, occupied the rooms at the back of the second floor, and Keats and Severn had the rooms at the front, overlooking the Spanish Steps and the burbling fountain in the Piazza, the Fontana della Barcaccia.
Unfortunately, Keats’ health only worsened despite Severn’s diligent care of him. John Keats died in the little corner bedroom of these rooms, late at night on Friday 23 February 1821.
The funeral procession left from the Piazza before dawn on Monday 26 February.
Due to Rome’s health laws, the room in which Keats died was stripped and scraped back, and everything burned. It has since been restored to its former condition, with the carved and painted daisies in the ceiling, just as Keats had known.
The rooms were occupied privately for the rest of the 1800s, and became quite dilapidated, despite a constant stream of visitors wanting to see the room where Keats had died.
The efforts to purchase the rooms, and turn them into a museum began in 1903, with support and fundraising coming from America and Britain as well as Italy. The purchase occurred in 1906, and restoration began. A dedication was carried out by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, on 3 April 1809, and the museum was formally opened to the public.
During the Second World War, anticipating the German occupation of Rome, the House preserved itself by taking down its signage and appearing to be just another anonymous set of rooms. The thousands of books remained where they were. However, two boxes of particular treasures – including letters, first editions, and locks of Keats’ and Shelley’s hair – were sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino for safekeeping. The Abbey’s archivist then took the boxes with him when the Abbey was evacuated in 1943, ahead of German occupation and Allied bombing. Eventually, with the Allied forces arriving in Rome, the boxes and their contents were restored to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, and formally unsealed and opened in June 1944.
The House now contains a significant library and extensive memorabilia associated with the Romantic poets. The walls of the main rooms are lined with beautiful book shelves and display cases, though Keats’ bedroom is preserved as he would have known it.
The House is run by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. It occupies all of the second floor of the building, and has now expanded into parts of the first floor as well.
I have loved visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. Despite the sadness of Keats’ early death, there is a sense of peace and contentment there … not to mention a cool selection of items in the gift shop!
NB: The museum is reached via a few steps up to the front door, and then a relatively wide stairwell going up two stories. Staff are willing to help where they can, but there is no lift, and therefore people with restricted mobility will need to plan ahead with all this in mind.
I have felt all the luck and privilege associated with being able to view a lock of Keats’ hair – so distinctively reddish-brown! – and the original of Severn’s last portrait of him sketched while Keats was dying.
There are regular talks given for visitors, lectures and events, as well as an annual poetry competition for school children.
- Address: Piazza di Spagna 26, 00187 Rome
- Metro: Spagna on Line A
- Opening hours: The House is open Monday to Saturday each week, and closes for an hour at lunchtime. Check the details on the website before you travel!
Keats House is a ‘writer’s home museum’ in honour of John Keats, who lived there for various periods between December 1818 and September 1820, when he left for Italy. It is a particularly significant location, as he wrote much of his most admired poetry there, and also fell deeply in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne.
The Keats Connection
Keats House was originally known as Wentworth Place, and was built during the period 1814-15, on what was called John Street, near the edge of Hampstead Heath. The building contained two homes, although the facade makes it look like it’s all one. The area behind the main front door and the rooms to the right of it made up the larger portion, occupied by Charles Wentworth Dilke and his family. Charles Brown occupied the smaller home to the left, with an entrance midway along the left side of the house. (The large conservatory on the left was a later addition.)
After Keats’ youngest brother Tom Keats died in December 1818, Charles Brown asked John to move in with him. Keats occupied the living room at the rear on the ground floor, and the bedroom at the rear on the first floor.
The Dilke family moved out of their home in April 1819, and let it to the Brawne family. Keats fell in love with and became engaged to Fanny Brawne, the oldest of the family’s three children.
Almost all of Keats’ great odes were composed at Wentworth Place in 1819, as well as other poetry. Brown told the tale of how Keats wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ while sitting under a plum tree in the garden, though Dilke called Brown’s story ‘pure delusion’. In any case, the location and Fanny Brawne between them perhaps saw Keats at his happiest and most productive.
Keats spent time away from Wentworth Place travelling – especially when Charles Brown wanted to sublet his home during the summer. As Keats’ illness became more serious, he also lived for a time in lodgings near, and then with, Leigh Hunt’s family in London. After a falling out with the Hunts, however, Mrs Brawne generously took Keats into their home on the Dilkes’ side of Wentworth Place, and the Brawnes took care of him until Keats left for Italy in September 1820.
The Keats connection with Wentworth Place continued after Keats’ death in February 1821. At his request, Fanny Brawne befriended his young sister, Fanny Keats, who was living very unhappily with her guardian’s family in Walthamstow. Fanny Keats, once she came of age at 21 and could do as she wished, moved in with the Brawnes who welcomed her as a daughter and sister. Later, Fanny Keats married Valentine Llanos, and they moved into Brown’s part of the house with their first child, and lived there next to the Brawnes until their growing family forced them to move to larger quarters.
The Brawnes left Wentworth Place by early 1830, and the Llanos family left in 1831.
The house was owned privately throughout the 1800s. The actress Eliza Jane Chester bought it in 1838, added the large conservatory, and converted the house into one home.
A ‘blue plaque’ was erected at Keats House in 1896 to acknowledge Keats’ residence there. It is actually a reddish-brown plaque, as was usual for those placed by the Society of Arts. Not many of these types of plaques survive. It reads:
John Keats. Poet. Lived in this house. B: 1795. D: 1821.
You can see it today above the House’s front door.
In 1920, the House was threatened with demolition so that a block of flats could be built on the land. A Memorial Committee managed to raise enough money to buy the house in 1921, and restore it as a museum in honour of the poet. Keats House was opened to the public on 9 May 1925. Various renovations have taken place since then.
The House is a Grade I listed building, and is now managed by the City of London.
Keats House is a wonderful place to visit. I find a real sense of peace there – which is not what I’d looked for. Since the most recent refurbishment in 2007-09, the place is really beautifully fitted out, and contains period-appropriate furnishings. You can visit not only the ground and first floors, but also the kitchen and other rooms in the basement. Guided tours are available each day the House is open.
- NB: The first floor and the basement are only accessible via stairs – and fairly steep, narrow ones at that. People with restricted mobility should, however, be able to visit the ground floor with no problems, and I can promise that’s very worthwhile.
The items on display are changed on a regular basis, but the treasures I’ve seen there include the engagement ring Keats gave to Fanny Brawne, a notebook from his medical studies, his annotated copy of Shakespeare, and the letter Shelley sent him from Pisa. Otherwise, there’s plenty of artwork and other images, and information.
The gift shop is small but always carries an intriguing range of books, along with toys, gifts and souvenirs. On a practical note, there are conveniences in a small block behind the house. There is no cafe, but there are plenty just around the corner near the Hampstead Heath station (I highly recommend Euphorium Bakery), and even more up the hill towards the Hampstead station.
Keats House stands on a large block, with lovely gardens maintained in the kind of style Keats would have recognised. There is always plenty of greenery, almost always flowers, and there are plenty of benches from which to enjoy them.
Not only all that, but there are regular events held at Keats House including poetry performances, workshops, and family days. Evening events change according to the season, and often look at other poets, or other matters of interest in Keats’ era. Some guided tours focus on specific aspects of Keats’ life or work. Workshops are offered to schools for students at all levels. I am sure Keats would particularly appreciate the House’s support for today’s poets.
- Address: Keats House, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR.
- Tube: Hampstead Heath on the Overground line, or Hampstead on the Northern line.
- NB: Opening hours: The House is not open all day every day, so it is always worth checking on the opening hours, and the time(s) of guided tours, before making plans.