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   Chapter 8 A HAMPSTEAD GROUP

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 27940

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Out at Hampstead you may still visit what was once that studio of Romney's to which Flaxman sent his collection of plaster casts from Italy. It had been a favourite idea of Romney's, his son tells us, "to form a complete Gallery of Casts, and to open it to any youths of respectability," and in his closing years, after he had removed to Hampstead, he carried out his wish, to some extent, with Flaxman's aid, and had three pupils working in his studio there, copying the casts and studying under him. The house he occupied from 1796 to 1799 is now the Holly Bush Inn; he bought a piece of land at the back of it, and on this built himself a studio and gallery, which now form part of the Hampstead Constitutional Club. "It was to Hampstead that Hayley's friend Romney, the painter, retired in the decline of his life," writes J. T. Smith, in Nollekens and his Times, "when he built a dining-room close to his kitchen, with a buttery hatch opening into it, so that he and his friends might enjoy beef-steaks, hot and hot, upon the same plan as the members of the Beef-steak Club are supplied at their room in the Lyceum."

ROMNEY'S HOUSE. HAMPSTEAD.

Though Romney was then in the decline of his life, he was at the height of his fame. He had married at the age of nineteen, and six years later set out for London, leaving his wife behind at Kendal. He had no intention of deserting her, but in London his genius soon won recognition, he began to move in good society, and partly because Sir Joshua Reynolds had once said that "marriage spoilt an artist," partly because he became infatuated with Nelson's enchantress, Lady Hamilton, he neither brought his wife to London, nor visited her, nor ever saw her again until he was dying. On April 28, 1799, Hayley called on him for the last time at Hampstead, and thought that "increasing weakness of body and mind afforded only a gloomy prospect for the residue of his life." Then in July Flaxman saw him, and says in one of his letters, "I and my father dined at Mr. Romney's at Hampstead last Sunday, by particular invitation, and were received in the most cordial manner; but, alas! I was grieved to see so noble a collection in a state so confused, so mangled, and prepared, I fear, for worse, and not better." Very soon after this Romney left London for ever, and returned to Kendal and the wife he had neglected since the days of his obscure youth, and early in 1801, by his directions, "the collection of castes from the antique, a very fine skeleton, and other artistic properties of George Romney, at his late residence, Hollybush Hill, Hampstead," were sold by Messrs. Christie.

Meanwhile, his wife had pardoned him and was caring for him. "Old, nearly mad, and quite desolate," writes Fitzgerald, "he went back to her, and she received him and nursed him till he died. This quiet act of hers is worth all Romney's pictures!-even as a matter of art, I am sure." It is this beautiful devotion of hers that gave Tennyson a subject for one of his later poems, Romney's Remorse; in which the dying painter, rousing out of delirium, says:-

"There-you spill

The drops upon my forehead. Your hand shakes.

I am ashamed. I am a trouble to you,

Could kneel for your forgiveness. Are they tears?

For me-they do me too much grace-for me?...

My curse upon the Master's apothegm,

That wife and children drag an artist down!

This seemed my lodestar in the Heaven of Art,

And lured me from the household fire on earth....

This Art, that harlot-like,

Seduced me from you, leaves me harlot-like,

Who love her still, and whimper, impotent

To win her back before I die-and then-

Then in the loud world's bastard judgment day

One truth will damn me with the mindless mob,

Who feel no touch of my temptation, more

Than all the myriad lies that blacken round

The corpse of every man that gains a name:

'This model husband, this fine artist!' Fool,

What matters! Six feet deep of burial mould

Will dull their comments! Ay, but when the shout

Of His descending peals from Heaven, and throbs

Thro' earth and all her graves, if He should ask

'Why left you wife and children? for My sake,

According to My word?' and I replied,

'Nay, Lord, for Art,' why, that would sound so mean

That all the dead who wait the doom of Hell

For bolder sins than mine, adulteries,

Wife-murders-nay, the ruthless Mussulman

Who flings his bowstrung Harem in the sea,

Would turn and glare at me, and point and jeer

And gibber at the worm who, living, made

The wife of wives a widow-bride, and lost

Salvation for a sketch....

O let me lean my head upon your breast.

'Beat, little heart,' on this fool brain of mine.

I once had friends-and many-none like you.

I love you more than when we married. Hope!

O yes, I hope, or fancy that, perhaps,

Human forgiveness touches heaven, and thence-

For you forgive me, you are sure of that-

Reflected, sends a light on the forgiven."

Another famous artist who is closely associated with Hampstead was John Constable. In 1820, writing to his friend, the Rev. John Fisher (afterwards Archdeacon Fisher), he says, "I have settled my wife and children comfortably at Hampstead"; and a little later he writes, again to Fisher, "My picture is getting on, and the frame will be here in three weeks or a fortnight.... I now fear (for my family's sake) I shall never make a popular artist, a gentleman and ladies painter. But I am spared making a fool of myself, and your hand stretched forth teaches me to value what I possess (if I may say so), and this is of more consequence than gentlemen and ladies can well imagine." He was then living at No. 2 Lower Terrace, a small house of two storeys, and writes from that address, again to Fisher, on the 4th August 1821, "I am as much here as possible with my family. My placid and contented companion and her three infants are well. I have got a room at a glazier's where is my large picture, and at this little place I have many small works going on, for which purpose I have cleared a shed in the garden, which held sand, coals, mops and brooms, and have made it a workshop. I have done a good deal here." Lower Terrace is within a few minutes' walk of the Heath, the scenery of which appears in so many of Constable's paintings. He removed presently to Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square; one of his pictures exhibited in the Louvre made him famous in France, and his fame was spreading in England when he went back to Hampstead in 1826, and after staying for a while at 25 Downshire Hill (which has since been rebuilt) was "at length fixed," as he wrote to Fisher, "in a comfortable little house at Well Walk, Hampstead.... So hateful is moving about to me that I could gladly exclaim, 'Here let me take my everlasting rest.' This house is to my wife's heart's content; it is situated on an eminence at the back of the spot in which you saw us, and our little drawing-room commands a view unsurpassed in Europe from Westminster Abbey to Gravesend. The dome of St. Paul's in the air seems to realise Michael Angelo's words on seeing the Pantheon-'I will build such a thing in the sky.'" In Constable's time the house was not numbered, but it has been identified as the present No. 40, and after his wife's death he kept it as an occasional residence until he died in 1837. He is buried not far from it, in the Hampstead Churchyard.

JOHN KEATS

CONSTABLE. CHARLOTTE STREET.

In the same churchyard is buried Joanna Baillie, who spent the last forty-five years of her life at Bolton House, Windmill Hill, opposite the Hollybush Inn, and here Wordsworth, Rogers, and Scott were among her visitors. Other famous Hampstead residents buried in this churchyard are Mrs. Barbauld, who lived in Church Row, then near the foot of Rosslyn Hill, and died in John Street; Sir Walter Besant, who died at Frognal End, near the top of Frognal Gardens; and George du Maurier, who lived for twenty-five years in Church Row and at New Grove House, by Whitestone Pond, and dying in 1896, a year after he left Hampstead, was brought back here to be buried.

JOANNA BAILLIE. WINDMILL HILL. HAMPSTEAD.

In the house at the corner of Prince Arthur Road and the High Street, that is now occupied by the Hampstead Subscription Library, Clarkson Stanfield made his home for many years. He did notable work as a landscape and sea painter and became a Royal Academician, but was best known and most successful as a scenic artist for the theatre, and brought the art of scene-painting to a higher level than it had ever reached before. His more ambitious pictures are in private collections, however, his stage scenery has had its day, and I suppose most of us remember him better as one of Dickens's most familiar friends. He painted the scenery for Wilkie Collins's play, The Lighthouse, when Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mark Lemon, and others of their circle produced it at Tavistock House, and for other of the plays that Dickens staged there in his "smallest theatre in the world"; and Dickens's letters are sown with references to him. Writing to an American friend describing the Christmas sports he had been holding at his house, Dickens says he has purchased the entire stock-in-trade of a conjuror, and that "in those tricks which require a confederate I am assisted (by reason of his imperturbable good humour) by Stanfield, who always does his part exactly the wrong way, to the unspeakable delight of all beholders. We come out on a small scale to-night" (31st December 1842) "at Forster's, where we see the old year out and the new one in." On the 16th January 1844 (putting Martin Chuzzlewit aside) he is writing to Forster, "I had written you a line pleading Jonas and Mrs. Gamp, but this frosty day tempts me sorely. I am distractingly late; but I look at the sky, think of Hampstead, and feel hideously tempted. Don't come with Mac and fetch me. I couldn't resist if you did"; and a month later, on the 18th February, "Stanfield and Mac have come in, and we are going to Hampstead to dinner. I leave Betsy Prig as you know, so don't you make a scruple about leaving Mrs. Harris. We shall stroll leisurely up to give you time to join us, and dinner will be on the table at Jack Straw's at four"; and in less than a month, on the 5th March, "Sir, I will-he-he-he-he-he-he-I will NOT eat with you, either at your own house or the club. But the morning looks bright, and a walk to Hampstead would suit me marvellously. If you should present yourself at my gate (bringing the R.A.'s along with you) I shall not be sapparised. So no more at this writing from poor Mr. Dickens." In June of the same year he sent Forster the proof of a preface he had written to a book by a poor carpenter named Overs, saying, "I wish you would read this, and give it me again when we meet at Stanfield's to-day"; and, still in the same year, "Stanny" is one of the friends he wishes Forster to invite to his chambers in Lincoln's Inn Fields to hear a reading of The Chimes before it is published.

No part of London is richer in literary and artistic associations than Hampstead. At the "Upper Flask" tavern, now known as the "Upper Heath," Pope, Addison, Steele, Congreve, Hogarth and the other members of the Kit-Kat club used to meet in the eighteenth century, and Hogarth and Addison and his friends frequently resorted to the "Bull and Bush" at North End. Akenside lived for a while in Hampstead, and after he had left it went to stay occasionally with his friend Mr. Dyson at Golder's Hill, and was staying there in 1758 when he wrote his Ode on recovering from a fit of sickness in the Country, beginning:-

"Thy verdant scenes, O Goulder's Hill,

Once more I seek, a languid guest."

Gay often went to Hampstead to drink the waters, at the Pump Room, in Well Walk; Dr. Arbuthnot lived in Hampstead, where Swift and Pope were among his visitors; Fuseli lodged in Church Row; Dr. Johnson's wife spent some of her summer holidays at a cottage near the entrance to the Priory, and the Doctor would tear himself away from his loved Fleet Street to pass an occasional day or two there with her; and of recent years Robert Louis Stevenson stayed with Sidney Colvin at Abernethy House, Mount Vernon, and at that time Stevenson, who was then twenty-four, so far conformed to the proprieties as to go about in "a frock coat and tall hat, which he had once worn at a wedding."

STANFIELD'S HOUSE. HAMPSTEAD.

Tennyson's mother had a house in Flask Walk; when Edward Fitzgerald was in London, Tennyson introduced him to Dickens, and these three, taking Thackeray with them, drove out together to Hampstead Heath. Relics of Dick Turpin are preserved at the Spaniards Inn, a quaint, old-world hostelry that has in different generations entertained Goldsmith, Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Garrick and Constable, as well as Dickens and many of his familiars.

THE UPPER FLASK. FROM THE BOWLING GREEN.

But more intimately than with any other of the immortals Hampstead has come to be associated with Keats and Leigh Hunt-with Keats in particular. He was born, a good Cockney, in Moorfields, over his father's livery stables, and in 1816 went to live with his brother Tom at No. 1 Well Walk, next door to the "Green Man," which has been succeeded by the Wells Tavern, and in his room here, on the 18th November 1816, when he was one-and-twenty, wrote a sonnet To My Brothers:-

"Small, busy flames play through the fresh-laid coals,

And their faint cracklings o'er our silence creep

Like whispers of the household gods that keep

A gentle empire o'er fraternal souls.

And while for rhymes I search around the poles,

Your eyes are fixed, as in poetic sleep,

Upon the lore so voluble and deep

That aye at fall of night our care condoles.

This is your birthday, Tom, and I rejoice

That thus it passes smoothly, quietly:

Many such eves of

gently whispering noise

May we together pass, and calmly try

What are this world's true joys-ere the great Voice

From its fair face shall bid our spirits fly."

In 1818 Keats moved to another part of Hampstead, and lodged with his friend, Charles Armitage Brown, a retired merchant, at Wentworth Place, now known as Lawn Bank, in John Street, which was the other day, for no sufficient reason, renamed Keats Grove. At that date Wentworth Place was divided into two houses, Brown renting one, and Wentworth Dilke occupying the other; and when the Dilkes were away from home they left their house in the possession of Mrs. Brawne, her son, and two daughters, the elder of these daughters being the Fanny Brawne of Keats's piteous love romance. Though he finished the writing of it, and wrote the preface to it, on a holiday at Teignmouth, Endymion was published, and most of it had been written, whilst he was at Wentworth Place, and under this roof also he wrote his Eve of St. Agnes, Isabella, Hyperion, and the Ode to a Nightingale. As every one knows, the publication of Endymion brought him little but ridicule and abuse from the reviewers; but, much as this must have wounded and mortified his sensitive nature, it was so far from being the cause of his death, as some sentimentalists said it was, that, as you may gather from his correspondence, it did not even discourage him. The Quarterly snubbed him as a copyist of Leigh Hunt, professed to find Endymion so tedious as to be almost unreadable, and saw nothing in it but "calm, settled, imperturbable, drivelling idiocy"; Blackwood's Magazine, referring to his having qualified as a surgeon, sneered "Back to the shop, Mr. John, stick to plasters, pills, ointment-boxes;" and the majority of critics were equally unappreciative. Byron dubbed him "a tadpole of the Lakes," and in divers letters to John Murray says, "There is such a trash of Keats and the like upon my tables that I am ashamed to look at them. No more Keats, I entreat.... Of the praises of the little dirty blackguard Keats in the Edinburgh I shall observe, as Johnson did when Sheridan the actor got a pension, 'What, has he got a pension? Then it is time that I should give up mine.' At present, all the men they have ever praised are degraded by that insane article. Why don't they review and praise Solomon's Guide to Health? It is better sense and as much poetry as Johnny Keats." After Keats was dead, Byron changed his opinions somewhat, and was anxious that his disparagements of him should be suppressed. "You know very well," he writes to Murray, "that I did not approve of Keats's poetry, or principles of poetry, or of his abuse of Pope; but as he is dead, omit all that it said about him in any MSS. of mine, or publication. His Hyperion is a fine monument, and will keep his name"; and he added later, "His fragment of Hyperion seems actually inspired by the Titans, and is as sublime as ?schylus. He is a loss to our literature."

Keats was too fully occupied with the writing of other poems, with the glowing raptures and black despairs of his passion for Fanny Brawne, and the anxieties attendant upon the illness that was already wearing him down, to give overmuch of his thoughts to the attacks of his critics; moreover, he found consolation in the society and friendship of such men as Cowden Clarke, Wentworth Dilke (who founded the Athen?um), John Hamilton Reynolds, Haydon the painter, and Leigh Hunt, whom he frequently visited at that cottage of his in the Vale of Health, which ought never to have been demolished. For it was the meeting-place, too, of Keats and Shelley, and within it on one occasion, according to Cowden Clarke, Leigh Hunt challenged Keats, "then, and there, and to time," to write in competition with him a sonnet on The Grasshopper and the Cricket, and Keats finished his first. Passing a night there when he could not sleep, Keats wrote his Sleep and Poetry; and the cottage was rich, too, in rumours of such guests as Lamb, Hazlitt, and Coleridge.

KEATS' HOUSE. HAMPSTEAD.

Keats was introduced to Coleridge by Leigh Hunt. In 1816, when he was trying to cure himself of the opium habit, Coleridge went to live with Mr. Gilman, a surgeon, in a house that still stands in The Grove, Highgate, and walking with Hunt one day in Millfield Lane, which runs on the Highgate side of the Heath, he chanced to meet Keats, and this is his own account of the meeting: "A loose, slack, and not well-dressed youth met me in a lane near Highgate. It was Keats. He was introduced to me, and stayed a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he ran back and said, 'Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand.' 'There is death in that hand,' I said when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly." But another four years were not past when Hone, the author of The Table Book, saw "poor Keats, the poet of The Pot of Basil, sitting and sobbing his dying breath into a handkerchief," on a bench at the end of Well Walk, overlooking the Heath, "glancing parting looks towards the quiet landscape he had delighted in so much."

Perhaps the best descriptions of Keats in the last four years of his life are those given by Haydon, the painter, in his Memoirs, and by Leigh Hunt in his Autobiography. "He was below the middle size," according to Haydon, "with a low forehead and an eye that had an inward look perfectly divine, like a Delphian priestess who saw visions.... Unable to bear the sneers of ignorance or the attacks of envy, not having strength of mind enough to buckle himself together like a porcupine, and present nothing but his prickles to his enemies, he began to despond, flew to dissipation as a relief which, after a temporary elevation of spirits, plunged him into deeper despondency than ever. For six weeks he was scarcely sober, and to show what a man does to gratify his habits, when once they get the better of him, he once covered his tongue and throat as far as he could reach with cayenne pepper, in order to appreciate the 'delicious coldness of claret in all its glory'-his own expression." Leigh Hunt writes, "He was under the middle height; and his lower limbs were small in comparison with the upper, but neat and well turned. His shoulders were very broad for his size: he had a face in which energy and sensibility were remarkably mixed up; an eager power, checked and made patient by ill health. Every feature was at once strongly cut and delicately alive. If there was any faulty expression, it was in the mouth, which was not without something of a character of pugnacity. His face was rather long than otherwise; the upper lip projected a little over the under; the chin was bold, the cheeks sunken; the eyes mellow and glowing, large, dark, and sensitive. At the recital of a noble action, or a beautiful thought, they would suffuse with tears and his mouth trembled. In this there was ill health as well as imagination, for he did not like these betrayals of emotion; and he had great personal as well as moral courage. He once chastised a butcher, who had been insolent, by a regular stand-up fight." (Tradition says this fight took place in one of the narrow courts out of the High Street, Hampstead.) "His hair, of a brown colour, was fine, and hung in natural ringlets. The head was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull; a singularity he had in common with Byron and Shelley, whose hats I could not get on." Add to these a description given by one who knew him to Lord Houghton: "His eyes were large and blue, his hair auburn; he wore it divided down the centre, and it fell in rich masses each side of his face; his mouth was full, and less intellectual than his other features. His countenance lives in my mind as one of singular beauty and brightness; it had the expression as if it had been looking on some glorious sight."

The last two years of his life at Hampstead, with their quiet happiness, fierce unrests, passionate hopes and despairs, are all wonderfully reflected in his letters of this period. He writes from Wentworth Place to John Taylor, the publisher, in 1818, setting forth his poetical creed and saying, with a clear perception of its defects, "If Endymion serves me as a pioneer, perhaps I ought to be content.... I have, I am sure, many friends who, if I fail, will attribute any change in my life and temper to humbleness rather than pride-to a cowering under the wings of great poets, rather than to a bitterness that I am not appreciated. I am anxious to get Endymion printed that I may forget it and proceed." There is a long letter to his sister in 1819, telling her of the books he has been reading, and describing his every-day life, beginning, "The candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper, which has a long snuff on it-the fire is at its last click-I am sitting with my back to it, with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet. I am writing this on The Maid's Tragedy, which I have read since tea with great pleasure. Besides this volume of Beaumont and Fletcher, there are on the table two volumes of Chaucer and a new work of Tom Moore's called Tom Cribb's Memorial to Congress-nothing in it." Reading this minute little sketch of himself, it is easy to picture him sitting late that night in his quiet room in Keats Grove; but it is the letters to Fanny Brawne that give this house, which was then two houses, its deepest and most living interest.

CONSTABLE'S HOUSE. HAMPSTEAD.

In 1819 he writes to her, whilst he is away holidaying in the Isle of Wight and she at Wentworth Place, "I have never known any unalloyed happiness for many days together; the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours-and now, when none such troubles oppress me, it is, you must confess, very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me. Ask yourself, my love, whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom." And again, "Your letter gave me more delight than anything in the world but yourself could do.... I never knew before what such love as you have made me feel was; I did not believe in it; my fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up." And again, "I have been in so irritable a state of health these two or three last days, that I did not think I should be able to write this week.... I have been, I cannot tell why, in capital spirits this last hour. What reason? When I have to take my candle and retire to a lonely room, without the thought, as I fall asleep, of seeing you to-morrow morning? or the next day, or the next-it takes on the appearance of impossibility and eternity. I will say a month-I will say I will see you in a month at most, though no one but yourself should see me; if it be but for an hour. I should not like to be so near you as London without being continually with you; after having once more kissed you, Sweet, I would rather be here alone at my task than in the bustle and hateful literary chitchat. Meantime you must write to me-as I will every week-for your letters keep me alive."

Back in London, making a short stay with Leigh Hunt, then living at College Street, Kentish Town, Keats sends to Wentworth Place a letter to Fanny Brawne, in the course of which he tells her, "My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again-my Life seems to stop there-I see no further. You have absorbed me.... My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you." Even when he is home again, in his own part of the Wentworth Place house, he is writing in February 1820, "They say I must remain confined to this room for some time. The consciousness that you love me will make a pleasant prison of the house next to yours. You must come and see me frequently: this evening without fail"; and again, in the same month, "You will have a pleasant walk to-day. I shall see you pass. I shall follow you with my eyes over the Heath. Will you come towards evening instead of before dinner? When you are gone, 'tis past-if you do not come till the evening I have something to look forward to all day. Come round to my window for a moment when you have read this."

In September of that year he set out on that voyage to Italy from which he was never to return, and whilst the ship was delayed off the Isle of Wight, he wrote to his friend, Charles Armitage Brown, at the old Hampstead address, "The very thing which I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death. I cannot help it. Who can help it?... I daresay you will be able to guess on what subject I am harping-you know what was my greatest pain during the first part of my illness at your house. I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing.... I think, without my mentioning it, for my sake, you would be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead. You think she has many faults-but, for my sake, think she has not one. If there is anything you can do for her by word or deed I know you will do it.... The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible-the sense of darkness coming over me-I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using during my last nursing at Wentworth Place ring in my ears. Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering."

GEORGE DUMAURIER'S GRAVE. HAMPSTEAD.

Because of all this, and of the reiterated longings and the heartaches that Keats poured out in other letters that he wrote from Italy, and that were delivered here to Armitage Brown, I always feel that Wentworth Place is the saddest and most sacred of London's literary shrines.

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