Monday, 9 November 2009

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Yesterday the Partridge invited me over for supper and to celebrate my birthday we first met up at the poet John Keats’ former home in Hampstead. It gave both of us an opportunity to view the Regency house where Keats first began his doomed love affair with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne, a story depicted in Jane Campion’s latest film “Bright Star.”  The 19th century actress Eliza Jane Chester later incorporated the two houses into one dwelling and added a single storey extension on to the original building known by Keats.

Jane Campion, the director of Bright Star (and the Oscar winning The Piano, one of my favourite films) held the after party for the London premiere there and donated several props from the film to be displayed around the house. It has been many years since the Partridge last visited the place, but she says it has altered for the better. She remembers viewing items through dusty display cabinets set in gloomy rooms. Now the curators have endeavoured to give a flavour of how certain rooms might have looked, both in terms of furnishings and decoration, at the time Keats lived there with his friend Charles Brown. The so-called Keats’s Parlour is the only room whose layout can be authenticated. Above the fireplace is a posthumous portrait in oils of Keats, set in the same room and painted by his close friend Joseph Severn. The ground floor contains not only the rooms Keats would have been familiar with, but also the dining room extension added by the actress Eliza Jane Chester, who later became a “reader” at the court of George IV. Given the latter’s less than spotless reputation regarding the ladies, I wondered whether “reader” was a euphemism for something altogether less cerebral. Certainly the satirists of the day thought so judging by the ribald cartoons of the actress and her sovereign on display in her former dining room.

The upper floor of the house is set out as a series of bedrooms. At the top of the stairs there is a little vestibule containing three costumes worn by the stars of Jane Campion’s film. In Keats’s bedroom, a small boy wailed that he wanted to go and find his daddy. In desperation his mother pointed to the 18th century commode on display and told her son that it was Keats’s toilet. The small child did not seem convinced that what effectively looked like a chest of drawers had anything in common with a modern flushing toilet. The mother debated aloud as to whether to open up the commode and reveal the chamber pot within but decided against it. I had shown similar heroic self-restraint when I refrained from trying on the red silk hat adorned with yellow plumes on display in the vestibule. However, since at the time I was wearing a 1910 tilt hat, adorned with silk roses and a rather becoming black veil, and as such a genuine museum piece, I could have argued that I was simply trying on the replica on the grounds of historical research. In reality, I knew the Regency hat would have proved far too dainty to fit my own head. 

Having carefully walked down the exceedingly narrow staircase to the ground floor we made our way down an equally narrow staircase to the basement kitchen and cellars. The rooms, with their flag-stoned floors, were distinctly musty. The Partridge said she revelled in such dankness and had always found such aromas thoroughly appealing. The Daily Mail had recently described the Partridge in her nest as sitting amongst paintings set at odd angles and wearing a blue cardigan full of holes. Had she let slip such a comment to the Daily Mail journalist, the Partridge’s reputation as a full blown English eccentric would have been sealed forever.

Highlights of the visit for me included:
  • The bust of Keats placed at a level in line with his real height of 5 foot one, an inch taller than the Partridge.
  • The costumes from the film Bright Star proving that the male lead Ben Wishaw is far taller than the real John Keats but not quite as tall as me.
  • The extravagant red silk and yellow plumed Regency bonnet from the film.
  • The Victorian oil painting of the poet John Milton (whom Keats greatly admired) and his daughters, whose own dresses looked suspiciously 19th century in style.
  • The 19th century blue and white transfer-ware side plate on the kitchen pine dresser thrillingly identical to china plates in my own home.
  • The signed certificate confirming that John Keats was licensed to practise medicine.
  • The generously proportioned four-poster bed in Charles Brown’s bedroom, which would fit easily into my own small garret as long as I moved out completely. Four-poster beds from earlier eras often tend to be far shorter in length, as it used to be the custom to sleep partially upright, propped up by bolsters, rather than lying prone.
  • The fridge magnet in the gift shop bearing the legend: a thing of beauty is a joy forever. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never even realised that it was a quote from a line of Keats’s poetry until I spied the magnet.
  • The Regency mirror in Fanny Brawne’s bedroom so darkened with age it would prove a boon to anyone averse to viewing their own features too closely.
  • The elegant façade and interior of the house. Put me in an empire-line gown and fanning myself before a marble regency fireplace and I would be in my element. 
  • Keats' House Hampstead