Leafy Hampstead. An area of London that’s close to the city centre, only 10 minutes on the Northern Line from Euston, but when you’re there, if you let yourself, you can almost believe that you’re in a small town in the country – helped by having the large expanse of open land that’s Hampstead Heath on the doorstep. It’s always been an area that’s appealed to artistic types – Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Lee Miller and George Orwell all lived here before the Second World War, and today it includes many celebrities amongst it’s wealthy residents.
Back in the 18th Century it was still a village outside the London metropolis which still hadn’t spread out this far. One of it’s residents for a few years during this period (between 1818 and 1820) was the Romantic poet John Keats. He lived in what was then a relatively new house, built in a style very typical of the Georgian / Regency period. It was here that he wrote many of his well known poems, including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. He also becam romantically involved with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door, a story that inspired the film “Bright Star”. Today the building is a museum devoted to his memory – Keats House.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, afternoons only, from 1pm to 5pm. During the winter months (beginning of November to the end of February) it is only open Friday to Sunday afternoons. We visited on a very pleasant, sunny Saturday afternoon in the early early autumn towards the end of September during a short break in London.
Wentworth House, as it was then known when Keats lived there, looks like a grand single residence. However, it was originally built as two quite separate houses. It was quite common during the Georgian period for architects to create the illusion that two or more houses were actually one larger residence – to help impress friends or neighbours who were unaware that they were being deceived. It was later converted to become one house and an extension added (which can be seen to the left of the main house in the picture above).
Keats lived with his friend Charles Brown in the smaller part of the building – the left hand side when viewed from the front. The front door served the larger of the two residences, occupied by the Brawn family. Keats’ and Brown’s house was accessed through a door in the left hand side of the building.
From the outside the building has a very restrained, simple appearance. Painted brilliant white it has many similarities with the Modernist buildings constructed from the 1930’s onwards and of which there are quite a number of examples in and around Hampstead although it has a traditional pitched roof rather than a flat type favoured by Modernist architects. It doesn’t have many neo-classical features typical of Georgian houses, other than the front door and the semi-circular arched recesses that surround the door and the two front ground floor windows. I think that it is an attractive building, other than the rather ugly extension.
It isn’t a particularly large building and a tour of the house and museum didn’t take us much more than an hour. Most of the original rooms have been furnished with typical furniture from the period and there are exhibits about Keats, his life and his time in the house. I found it particularly interesting to be able to look around. Many Georgian houses open to the public tend to be grander residences of aristocrats or more wealthy individuals. So, for me, as I’m not a Keats fanatic, the most interesting aspect of the visit was to be able to see the sort of spaces the less wealthy middle classes would have lived in. Although the house today, with it’s extension, is a decent size, when Keats lived here the two individual homes were relatively modest. Keats’ home was, to all intents and purposes, a “two up two down” with an additional two rooms down in the cellar. The Brawne’s part of the house was larger; probably about half as big again but it wasn’t a particularly large home for a family consisting of a mother and her two adult children, particularly if they had servants living in. The rooms were not particularly large, but I guess their space requirements were considerably less than that of the equivalent modern family as people at that time had far fewer possessions.
The museum was definitely worth the visit. It had architectural interest as well as providing a perspective on the everyday life of one of our major poets.