A poet in Hampstead and Rome

THE SHORT-LIVED POET, John Keats (1795-1821) resided briefly in Hampstead in what is now called Keats House. In my new book, “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” *, Keats:

“… took a great liking to Hampstead and settled there in 1817. He lived in Wentworth House, which was later renamed ‘Keats House’. The house in Keats Grove was built in about 1815 and divided in two separate dwellings. One half was occupied by Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842), a poet and friend of Leigh Hunt and the other half by Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789–1864), a literary associate of Hunt and a visitor to his home in the Vale of Health. Keats became Brown’s lodger. This was after Keats had visited his neighbour Dilke, with whom he became acquainted following an introduction by the poet and playwright John Hamilton Reynolds (1784-1852), who was part of Leigh Hunt’s circle of friends.”

Keats remained in Hampstead until 1820, when, ailing, he left for Italy to try to improve his health. Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived in Hampstead’s Vale of Health, noted in his autobiography that Keats died in Rome and was buried in the English Protestant cemetery near the monument to Gaius Cestius. Amongst his graveside mourners was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who also had spent time in Hampstead.

Had Keats not travelled to Italy, he would have probably died in Hampstead. If that had been the case, it would have been likely that he would have been buried in the graveyard of St John’s, Hampstead’s parish church on Church Row, where the artist John Constable rests in peace.

Bust of Keats in St Johns, Hampstead

Within the church there is a memorial to Keats, a bust, dated 1894, within 100 years of the poet’s birth. A gift from admirers of Keats in the USA, it was the first memorial to Keats in England. The story of the bust is related on the church’s website (https://hampsteadparishchurch.org.uk/data/keats_bust.php) as follows:

“Anne Whitney, a Boston sculptor (1821-1915) carved her original bust of Keats in 1873. The marble bust was inscribed Keats and not signed. It was exhibited the same year at Doll and Richards, Boston. It was owned by the artist until 1915 when it was bequeathed to Fred Holland Day. Day exhibited it at Boston Public Library in the loan exhibition of his Keats memorabilia in 1921 to mark the centenary of the poet’s death. The Keats bust was given by Fred Holland Day to Keats House and Museum shortly before he died, and its arrival was acknowledged by Fred Edgcumbe the curator of Keats House and Museum on 2 November 1933, the day of Day’s death. The marble replica of the bust inscribed KEATS AW (monogram) 1883 was carved by Anne Whitney in 1883. It was exhibited by F. Eastman Chase, Boston, and presented by Americans, as the first memorial to Keats on English soil, to Hampstead Parish Church on 16 July 1894. The bust remained in position until March 1992 when it was stolen. It was seen by Judith Bingham, the composer, when it was about to be auctioned at Finchley in May 1992. It failed to reach its reserve, Judith Bingham recognised its identity and it was returned to the Parish Church.”

The Keats bust is near the Lady Chapel, in which I saw a remarkable painting by Donald Chisholm Towner (1903-1985), who lived in Hampstead, in Church Row from 1937 until his death. The church’s guidebook revealed:

“The Altar Piece in the chapel was painted by Donald Towner of Church Row, in memory of his mother. True to the medieval tradition Towner used a local resident as the model for Mary, his nephew for John and his own mirror image for Christ.”

What is remarkable is that the three figures are depicted standing in Church Row. St John’s church can be seen in the background.

Apart from the bust and the painting, the church is well worth visiting to see its lovely architecture and to enjoy its peaceful atmosphere.

*My book is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92

Rabindranath Tagore in Hove and Hampstead

FROM HOVE TO HAMPSTEAD

THE NOBEL PRIZE winning Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was born in Calcutta (Kolkata). Raised in a culturally rich, wealthy household, he began writing poetry when he was eight years old. His family wanted him to join many of his compatriots, who travelled to England to become barristers. By becoming barristers, many Indian men were able to begin on the pathway to wealth and/or political influence both within the British colonial system, or against it.

Tagore was enrolled in a school in Brighton in 1878. Whilst there, he resided in Medina Villas in Hove. His biographers, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, wrote in their book (published 1996) that one of Rabindranath’s (‘Rabi’s’) nieces:

“…retained fresh memories of Rabi Kaka (Uncle Rabi) in the family house at Medina Villas, between Brighton and Hove, where he settled for several months.”

Tagore wrote:

“Our house at Hove is near the sea. 20/25 houses stand in rows and the name of the complex is Medina Villas. When I first heard that we would be living in Medina Villas, I imagined a lot, such as there are gardens, big big trees, flowers, fruits, open space and lakes etc. After coming to my place I found houses, roads, cars, horses and no sign of Villas” (http://rabitalent.blogspot.com/2017/06/rabindranath-in-england.html).

The school that Tagore attended briefly, for about two months, was in Brighton’s Ship Street, close to the town’s famous ‘Lanes’ and a few feet from the seafront. Recently, a commemorative plaque was attached to the building which housed the school and is now part of a hotel, which used to be its neighbour. The plaque named the educational establishment “Brighton Proprietary School”.

I attended a preparatory school before moving on to a high school, but until I saw the plaque in Brighton I had never heard of proprietary schools. It seems as if they were private schools that were run as businesses, rather than not-for-profit organisations. A note on the National Archives website (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/b1c290ea-4580-4c52-962b-10c0d281ac2a) revealed:

“The school was opened on 18 July 1859 under the title of the Brighton Proprietary Grammar and Commercial School for the Sons of Tradesmen. The proprietors … each had a share in the school and were entitled to take up places there. The education given had a Protestant bias and the first headmaster was the Rev John Griffiths, formerly of Brighton College.”

Brighton Proprietary School later became the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School (www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG250324). Dutta and Robinson wrote:

“After spending a short time in a school in Brighton and Christmas with his family, he was taken away to London by a friend of his elder brother, who felt he was making little progress towards becoming a barrister. There he would stay during most of 1879, with a break to visit Devon, where his sister-in-law had taken a house, and, most probably, time spent with some cousins…”

Fast-forwarding to 1912, Tagore, by then a world-famous cultural figure, visited London. During his stay, he resided in Hampstead’s Vale of Health, as I recount in my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” (available from  https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92). Here is a brief extract from what I wrote:

“The only vehicular access to the Vale is a winding road leading downhill from East Heath Road. This lane is bordered by dense woodland and by luxuriant banks of stinging nettles in spring and summer. At the bottom of this thoroughfare, there are houses. Most of the expensive cars parked outside them suggest that the Vale is no longer a home for the impoverished. At the bottom end of the road, there two large Victorian buildings whose front doors are framed by gothic-style archways. They have the name ‘Villas on the Heath’. One of them bears a circular blue commemorative plaque, which has leafy creepers growing over it. It states:

“Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941 Indian poet stayed here in 1912.”

I have visited the palatial Jorasanko where Tagore was brought up in Calcutta. The large (by London standards) ‘villa’ in the Vale is tiny in comparison. An article published in a Calcutta newspaper, The Telegraph, on the 13th of September 2009 reported with some accuracy:

‘In Hampstead, north London, regarded as a cultural “village” today for left-wing but arty champagne socialists, there is a plaque to Rabindranath Tagore at 3 Villas on Vale of Heath.’”

I have known about Tagore’s stay in Hampstead for a long time, but it was only during a recent visit to my wife’s relatives in Hove, that we first learned of the plaque commemorating Tagore’s brief educational experience in Brighton.

Image recalling lines of a verse

This photograph I took in Cornwall reminds me of lines from the first verse of a poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written by Thomas Gray (1716–1771). The lines are:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea …”

Rule Britannia!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS !

NOW THAT THE GRAND FINALE of Brexit is nail-bitingly close, maybe our thoughts will turn to patriotism as it is hoped by many, but certainly not all, that Britannia will once again rule the waves, or, at least, the fish that surround our ‘sceptred isle’. Some hope, if you ask me!

James Thomson

Yesterday, the 16th of December 2020, we joined our friends on a walk from their home in Richmond to Kew Gardens. On the way, we walked along a quiet back street, Kew Foot Road, and passed a former, now disused, hospital, ‘The Royal Hospital’, which opened in 1868 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royalrichmond.html)  and closed recently. In its last reincarnation, it served as a psychiatric day hospital and a mental health resource centre. A plaque on one of its buildings facing Kew Foot Road commemorates that James Thomson (1700-1748) lived and died here. Observant readers will note that his residence in this location antedates the establishment of the former hospital. The hospital was opened as ‘The Richmond Infirmary’ in the pre-existing Rosedale House on Kew Foot Road. According to James Thorne in “Handbook to the Environs of London” published in 1876, this was the building in which Thomson lived.

Thorne wrote of Rosedale House:

“The present house is a large brick house of three floors, – a centre with a small portico reached by a flight of steps, and two irregular wings. The house Thomson occupied was a mere cottage of two rooms on the ground floor, which now, united by an arch, form a sort of entrance hall… It has since suffered many changes, and is by now (1876) the Richmond Infirmary. The garden has suffered as much as the house. Thomson was fond of his garden, added largely to it, and spent as much time in improving it as his indolent temperament allowed.”

Thomson’s cottage became incorporated into the building that served as the first part of what was to become the Royal Hospital.

One room was where Thomson died on the 22nd of August 1748. The other room was where he wrote  his last published poem, “The Castle of Indolence” (text available at : http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=34286)  during the last year of his life. This poem, written in Spencerian stanzas, had a great influence on the poetry written by Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.  This kind of stanza, employed by Edmund Spencer (1552-1599) in his poem  “Faerie Queen”, consists of nine lines, eight of which are iambic pentameters and the remaining an iambic hexameter, with the ABABBCBCC rhyming scheme (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenserian_stanza).

Thomson was, as you might begin to realise, a poet. Born in Scotland, and educated at The College Edinburgh, he was planning to become a Presbyterian cleric. At Edinburgh, he joined the Grotesque Club, a literary group. He made friends with a fellow member, the Scottish poet and dramatist David Mallett (c1705-1765) and followed him to London in early 1725.  Thomson had a busy life in London, tutoring, teaching in a school, and writing.

In 1740, Thomson collaborated with Mallett on the masque “Alfred”, which was first performed that year at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), father of King George III. Five years later, the British composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) modified their work to create an oratorio and then a few years later an opera. The finale of this work by Arne uses Thomson’s words in the now well-known patriotic song “Rule Britannia”.

Thomson wrote the words to “Rule Britannia” whilst living at Rosedale in Kew Foot Road. He moved to the area from his room above the Lancaster Coffee House at Lancaster Court in London’s Strand in 1836, but not immediately to Rosedale. It was in 1839 that he moved along the road to Rosedale (www.richmond.gov.uk/james_thomson).

In August 1748, Thomson took a boat trip from Hammersmith to Kew. During that excursion, he caught a chill. The great Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) describes Thomson’s this excursion in his “Lives of the English Poets” as follows (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/BiographyRecord.php?action=GET&bioid=33843):

“The last piece that he lived to publish was The Castle of Indolence, which was many years under his hand, but was at last finished with great accuracy. The first canto opens a scene of lazy luxury, that fills the imagination.

He was now at ease, but was not long to enjoy it; for, by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put an end to his life.”

Thomson was buried in St Mary Magdalene, Richmond, near the font.

I had no idea when we set out for our walk that I would walk past the former home of the creator of the patriotic song, “Rule Britannia” on our way to Kew Gardens, which we entered via the Lion Gate and enjoyed greatly. Each time I visit these fine botanical gardens, my enjoyment of this place increases.

Under the trees

The outdoor café at Airlines Hotel in Bangalore has been in existence for many decades and still remains a popular eatery and coffee place. What a great joy it is to sit induer the leafy branches of the trees surrounding the outdoor chairs and tables.

People can be served while they sit in their cars parked in the small car park next to the outdoor seating area. At times, this parking lot can become very full. Cars queuing for entry to Airlines can cause traffic congestion in the street (Madras Bank Road) on which the eatery is located.

The walls enclosing Airline’s compound are decorated with paintings and quotations about tree leaves from the poetry of Kabir Das (1440-1518).

I have been visiting Airlines regularly since 1994, when I first visited Bangalore, and my enjoyment of the place had never diminished.