Keats House: what is it we go to visit? A glimpse of a light-winged Dryad in the trees? (Hampstead, North London)

Hampstead is somewhere I could easily live, were it not for the fact that the cycle home would always be uphill.

Its lush, leafy streets, lined with either the neat facades of Georgian houses, the slightly more smudged faces of Victorian villas or the new mega bling of 21st century mansions behind their steely electrified gates, feel like those of a village rather than an enclave a few miles from Central London.

On a separate note, I once said that when I retire I plan to take all the bus routes that run within a 10 minute walk of where I live and ride them to each end, discovering all the places along them.  In Central London that will be quite a retirement hobby.

I had a free ‘sample’ ArtFund card (that I’ve since renewed) and it gives free entrance to Keats’ House, which I was certainly expecting to fit into same category as The Charles Dickens House and Handle House.  Neither did I appreciate.

This house, called Wentworth House when Keats came to it in 1818 to lodge, was only home to Keats for 3 years of his too brief a life.  Call me grumpy but I was quite expecting a misguided attempt to preserve something lost in a building that should really be someone’s home instead of a museum (but then I remind myself that Simon Jenkins arrived at as similar conclusion about Kew Palace, having himself visited it before the recent refurb, and I couldn’t disagree with him more).

I went regardless, on the last day before my ArtFund card was due to expire.

I took a bus to the end of its route and it dropped me a 5 minute walk from the house; and so with a hop, skip and a jump off I went, peeking over fences into the gardens of smart houses as I went (and spotting that there is the local library in a shed-like building next door to Keats House itself).

Unlike my experience with other ‘regular houses with famous occupants’, where I didn’t really feel inspired by a need to visit them, I had been to visit a similar Keats museum in Rome, just by the Spanish steps, which is where John Keats died in 1821 aged just 25.  I had enjoyed my visit.

Perhaps, therefore, I thought to myself, the Keats House in Hampstead could similarly work its magic and make me feel one step closer to the pen of a poet that I much admire, especially given Keats’ relative youth when he wrote poems such as Ode to a Nightingale (allegedly in the garden of this house).

I cannot cuddle a cat without repeating the line “how many a maid hath mawled thy fur” in my mind; and I have often told a naughty cat “prythee, prick me not with thy latent talons”.

It was Keats’ poems that first taught me that without pain how can I expect to value pleasure?  This was back as a school child and felt like quite a revelation.  For a youth, on the same level as the morals learned from the teachings of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Yes, Keats has gotten into my mind so I felt a teeter of anticipation before this visit, in a not dissimilar but wholly different sense to when I go to somewhere like Holkham Hall, with all the hoo hah I’ve already heard about something.

So what did I get?

Well, not quite the real deal.

Save for one small room at the back of the property where Keats lived and would write, the house has been hacked about to form one property from what originally would have been two (next door lived Keats’ love, Fanny Brawne).

A Victorian (!) added an extra room across the width of the property to make a space for entertainment in what is otherwise quite a compact design.

In Keats’ time each of the two semis would have each been “2 up, 2 down”, with a shared kitchen in the cellar.

Go then; soak up the atmosphere in the one room where Keats would have worked and look at the pillow where he first coughed up blood, but take your looking glass goggles with you and a strong dose of imagination because that is what you’ll need if you truly want to appreciate where Keats lived, despite the occasional piece of period furniture and the few display cabinets containing trinkets including a lock of his hair.

Perhaps a video and some mock sets showing the original layout in the empty front room where there is also a small shop would help those visitors who make the trip slightly off the beaten track to this little enclave of sugar plums and candied cherries in North London worthy of a feast on the Eve of St Agnes.

Perhaps bask on a bench and take a gulp from the beaker of the warm sun from the South in the ample lawned garden and develop a squint to block out the later side extension while admiring the low pitch of the room that makes this house undeniably Regency.  Perhaps if you listen closely you’ll hear a trill from a tree, sung in full-throated ease.

When visited: August 2012

House * out of 5: *

Garden * out of 5: *



8 thoughts on “Keats House: what is it we go to visit? A glimpse of a light-winged Dryad in the trees? (Hampstead, North London)

  1. It looks pretty from the outside, so the interior would be a huge disappointment to me. Perhaps I haven’t quite got the gist of why it’s so sparcely decorated; it looks as though it’s waiting for something to happen to it.

    1. Indeed. These “types” of museum all seem to be lacking inside. The Charles Dickens Museum (but I’m going again to see if this w/e hopefully, snow permitting!, post-restoration) – and the Handel House Museum – Just almost empty rooms with a bit of wooden furniture. I think all the curators of these types of museums need to go to see the Dennis Severs Museum and see what can be achieved –

  2. Couldn’t disagree more. Keats House has an atmosphere all its own. I don’t go to these places to see it dressed like some second rate set designer’s idea of what the house should be. And £5 for a year’s entry is one of the best deals in London. Compare that too Dennis Sever’s house. Blimey, you need to take out a bank loan to take a family there. Keats House has enthusiastic, well informed guides, or you can wander around by yourself, unlike for instance Benjamin Franklin’s bare bones of a house which, with its actor-guide I personally found pretty cringe-worthy. Still, it takes all sorts. Just wanting to balance out the debate here…..

    1. Thanks for your comment Amanda. What I am seeking to understand through my visits to Keats House and those I mention above is the difference between a visit to an historic house and a visit to a museum in an historic house. I would put Keats House in the same category as Cliffe Castle; Dennis Sever’s House as closer to being in the same category as the Leighton House. Neither are wrong, but for me they offer totally different experiences. Sometimes I find the house is strong on its own; other times the occupant “maketh the house”.

      I didn’t find a particular atmosphere at Keats House – for me it was more like a museum than an experience of what it would have been like for Keats – I would have liked to have seen his study with a desk set up where he would have written (if he has a desk), his pen, maybe a glass case on that desk showing his handwritten notes for a poem, perhaps his jacket hanging on the back of the chair – not a set but using his real belongings, if they exist. I think many properties seek to share with their visitors what living in the house would have been like but because of the structural alterations at this property the museum has certain challenges to overcome.

      It is of course good value. I didn’t have a guide (nor was one on offer) but I do think putting more furniture in the entrance room and Victorian room would improve the atmosphere greatly, as would objects on the mantle pieces. Perhaps the lack of furniture it to allow for corporate events?

  3. I loved your article about your visit to Keat’s house. I adore Keat’s writing too. I often times thought Keats and Byron switched identities. Just goes to prove, you can’t judge a book by its cover (or age). You make some great observations about the property. I just love visiting these old houses and imaging what happened “back in the day”. Cheers!

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