The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Keats Bust

Hampstead Parish Church has its own personal reason for honouring the bi-centenary of Keats' birth. One of its greatest treasures is the bust of Keats. This bust was the gift to Hampstead Parish Church of Keats' American admirers. It was the first memorial to Keats in England.

American interest in Keats had probably been initiated by Joseph Rodman Drake who returned from London to New York in 1818 with a copy of Endymion. A number of American cities soon had their Keats advocates. And his cause was promoted by periodicals in Philadelphia and New York, by Willis, Kettell and Hill in Boston and by a group of Harvard undergraduates in Cambridge. These latter included James Freeman Clarke, later to be a Unitarian minister (and, when he was a pastor of a Unitarian church in Kentucky, an acquaintance of George Keats, the poet's brother); Thomas Gold Appleton, poet and essayist; John Holmes, younger brother of Oliver Wendell Holmes and intimate friend of James Russell Lowell, and Estes Howe, Lowell's brother-in-law, in whose house Arthur Hugh Clough stayed when he was in Cambridge. James Russell Lowell planned in 1840 to write a biography of Keats, a plan that did not materialise. In 1848 George P. Putnam of New York published his Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats........Complete in One Volume by R.M. Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton). The English edition in two volumes was published in 1848 by Edward Moxon. James Russell Lowell was a great admirer of Milnes' biography saying that Keats "was a rare genius. He had, I think, the finest and richest fancy that has been seen since Shakespeare."

Boston was the centre of the most devoted American disciples of Keats. Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) of Norwood was an avid collector of Keats memorabilia as was, to a lesser extent, his close friend Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) of Auburndale and after 1901 resident in England. Day had a long friendship with another well known Keats specialist, Louis Arthur Holman (1866-1939) of Needham, a writer on art and seller of prints at 5a, Park Street, Boston. He was also in close contact with Amy Lowell (1874-1925) of Sevenels, 70 Heath Street, Brookline, who was a generous supporter of the campaign to save Keats House, and who published her two-volume John Keats in February 1925, three months before her death. Fred Holland Day was the main inspiration behind the plan to present a bust of Keats to Hampstead Parish Church. James Russell Lowell was very interested in the project but declined in 1891 to serve as chairman of the fund-raising committee (perhaps because of ill health). Charles Eliot Norton served instead.

Anne Whitney, a Boston sculptor (1821-1915) carved her original bust of Keats in 1873. The marble bust was inscribed Keats and not signed. It was exhibited the same year at Doll and Richards, Boston. It was owned by the artist until 1915 when it was bequeathed to Fred Holland Day. Day exhibited it at Boston Public Library in the loan exhibition of his Keats memorabilia in 1921 to mark the centenary of the poet's death. The Keats bust was given by Fred Holland Day to Keats House and Museum shortly before he died, and its arrival was acknowledged by Fred Edgcumbe the curator of Keats House and Museum on 2 November 1933, the day of Day's death. The marble replica of the bust inscribed KEATS AW (monogram) 1883 was carved by Anne Whitney in 1883. It was exhibited by F. Eastman Chase, Boston, and presented by Americans, as the first memorial to Keats on English soil, to Hampstead Parish Church on 16 July 1894. The bust remained in position until March 1992 when it was stolen. It was seen by Judith Bingham, the composer, when it was about to be auctioned at Finchley in May 1992. It failed to reach its reserve, Judith Bingham recognised its identity and it was returned to the Parish Church.

The announcement of and invitation to the presentation "on the afternoon of Monday, the sixteenth of July, at four o'clock" were printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. The presentation of the bust was made by Fred Holland Day and it was received by an English friend of many American writers, Edmund Gosse. Others present included Sidney Colvin (1845-1927) who also spoke and who was Keats' biographer, Lord and Lady Battersea, the Bishops of Brisbane, Jamaica and Ohio, General Sir Redvers and Lady Buller and Francis Turner Palgrave.

Edmund Gosse in his address reminded his audience of Keats' first meeting with Leigh Hunt in 1816. Keats moved to lodgings in Well Walk in 1817 and was visited there by his friends, Charles Cowden Clarke, Charles Wentworth Dilke, Charles Armitage Brown and John Hamilton Reynolds. He moved to Wentworth Place (now Keats House) at Charles Brown's invitation after his brother Tom's death on 1 December 1818. His first meeting with Fanny Brawne was probably in November 1818. Miss Brawne and her family moved into the part of Wentworth Place which had been occupied by Charles Dilke and his family, in April 1819. At the end of 1819 Keats' health declined and when he left for Rome on 17 September 1820 he was already a dying man. "It is comparatively vain", said Gosse "to speculate as to the future of a man whose work was all done between the ages of nineteen and four-and-twenty. Yet I think we may see that what Keats was rapidly progressing towards until the moment when his health gave way, was a crystallisation into one fused and perfect style of all the best elements of the poetry of the ages......... Shall I say what will startle you if I confess that I sometimes fancy that we lost in the author of the five great odes the most masterful capacity for poetic expression which the world has ever seen?" After Gosse's speech of acceptance "from the hands of his American admirers (of) a monument inscribed to the memory of Keats", Gosse's daughter Tessa hung a laurel wreath on the marble bust. The ceremony was followed by prayers and by the playing on the organ of a selection of excerpts from Alexander Mackenzie's symphony La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and then by tea in the vicarage garden.

A hundred years on in this year of the bi-centenary of Keats' birth we may recognise the appropriateness that Hampstead Parish Church honoured one of Hampstead's greatest residents. And the fact that the Keats bust was the work of an American sculptor and the gift of Keats' American admirers may well be seen as a sign of the unity that exists between our two peoples.

Michael Barney
24 May 1995

Books consulted:
Keats' Reputation in America to 1848, Hyder Edward Rollins. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1946
Keats and the Bostonians, Hyder Edward Rollins and Stephen Maxfield Parrish. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1951

The Reverend Michael Barney gratefully acknowledges help given to him by Miss Roberta Davis, Assistant to Mrs C.M. Gee, Curator of Keats House Museum, London Borough of Camden, and by Mrs Judy East, Parish Clerk, Hampstead Parish Church, who kindly typed the manuscript.

Recently a memorial to John Keats has been put in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey

Keats House