Sunday, 29 July 2007

Keats' House

Today I visited Keats' House in Hampstead as one of my independent site visits. The house is the site of the original duplex where John Keats lived from 1818 to 1820, and now houses a museum in the poet's honor. The home was converted to a single home in 1838 by Eliza Chester, and this is how the house now appears. Nevertheless, much of the atmosphere that must have existed during John Keats' stay in the house remains. Many of the original fixtures in the home still exist, including the oven and wine cellar that would have belonged to Keats and his friend Charles Brown. The house was nearly demolished in the early 1900's, but was saved by public funding from both Britain and America. It was opened in 1925 as a public museum, although the interior remains greatly changed by the renovations performed by Eliza Chester. It is not the interior of the house, however, that currently provides the most insight into John Keats' stay there.

The home's large and beautiful garden, as well as its proximity to Hampstead Heath, help visitors to understand why Keats' years in Hampstead were among his most productive as a poet. Indeed, the garden features a plum tree planted in the spot where Keats composed one of his most well-known pieces, "Ode to a Nightingale." Keats was a prominent member of the Romantic movement in literature, which is characterized by attention to and praise of nature. The grounds at Keats' House and the beautiful environment of Hampstead, which seem worlds away from the noise and pollution of central London, help visitors to understand Keats' work by better understanding his inspiration. Additionally, the garden acts as a public space for the appreciation of both nature and poetry. The museum hosts family events in the garden, including singing and poetry readings as well as a "teddy bear's picnic," and welcomes artists to the garden to paint.

The Keats' House Museum currently holds a relatively small collection of items, partially due to the renovation work being undertaken, although many of items still on display are highly personal and therefore of great interest to Keats enthusiasts. Among the more fascinating objects in the Keats' House Museum are locks of Keats' and Fanny Brawne's hair, Keats' writing desk, and both a life mask and a death mask, displayed side by side in a room where Keats often spent time writing and reading. The museum also displays the engagement ring given by John Keats to his neighbor and fiancee, Fanny Brawne. While these items are powerful relics of the poet's life, the museum's main attraction for visitors lies in its gardens, activities, and its plans for renovation.

The Keats' House Museum has recently become the recipient of 424,000 pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be used to recreate the building's interior to reflect its appearance during Keats' time there. The plans, as laid out in a series of display boards in the museum's basement, include a recreation of the decorative elements of the home. Various samples of paint and wallpaper have been taken throughout the house, and by dating the layers the renovators hope to identify which would have been used during Keats' time in the house. After identification, the various colors and designs used for decoration will be recreated as far as possible, and used to renovate the museum to more closely resemble the home where Keats and Fanny Brawne lived. The work began in April of this year, and should be finished by November of 2009. At the culmination of the renovation work, many of the letters and manuscripts owned by the Keats' House Museum will be place back on display in the house, and the combination of the new environment and robust exhibitions should create a museum much better and more informative for generations of poetry-lovers to come.