Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Severn, Joseph
SEVERN, JOSEPH (1793–1879), painter, was born at Hoxton on 7 Dec. 1793. His father, James Severn, a musician by profession, belonged to an old Gloucestershire family, reduced by misfortune; his mother, whose maiden name was Littel, was of Huguenot extraction. The boy early showed a passion for drawing, which was encouraged by his father, who possessed considerable artistic sensitiveness without much taste or knowledge. Unable either to teach his son or to procure him regular instruction, he apprenticed him to an engraver. The noviciate in this profession proved intolerable to young Severn, who found himself constrained to constant copying while longing to attempt original work. He contrived to find time for the execution of drawings, purchased an easel and colours with the proceeds, and managed to pick up some instruction as a casual attendant at the academy schools. While thus struggling he formed, probably in 1816, the friendship with Keats by which he is now chiefly remembered; and his connection with Keats's brother George was even more intimate. In 1817 it was announced that the Royal Academy proposed to bestow a gold medal for the best historical painting by a student, a prize which had not been awarded for twelve years owing to the lack of merit among the candidates. The subject, ‘Una seizing the Dagger from the despairing Red Cross Knight’ (‘Faerie Queene,’ bk. i. canto 10), fired Severn's imagination, already powerfully stimulated by his intercourse with Keats, and, further encouraged by the commendation which Fuseli, then keeper of the academy, had bestowed upon some of his drawings, he resolved to be a competitor. He worked with the greatest determination, selling his watch and books to procure the necessary material, and, to his own and the general surprise, was declared the winner, on 10 Dec. 1818. For the time, nevertheless, his success obtained for him no substantial advantage; he found no encouragement except in miniature-painting. His more ambitious picture, ‘Hermia and Helena,’ though hung at the academy exhibition, attracted no attention; and the envy of disappointed rivals drove him from the academy schools. This, however, was not altogether disadvantageous in so far as it allowed him time for an increased intimacy with Leigh Hunt, Reynolds, and the other members of Keats's circle, which aided him in acquiring the culture in which he had hitherto been deficient. His friendship with Charles Armitage Brown [q. v.] became especially close. In September 1820 he formed, on the shortest notice, that generous resolution of accompanying the invalid Keats to Italy, which has fulfilled the aspiration of Shelley, that ‘the spirit of his illustrious friend might plead against oblivion for his name.’ It augments the honour due to Severn that his intention met with the strongest opposition from his father, who went so far as to knock him down; and that his devoted attendance on the dying Keats imperilled his prospect of obtaining a travelling pension from the Royal Academy by retarding the execution of the picture which was a necessary condition. After Keats's death on 24 Feb. 1821, Severn addressed himself to the completion of his picture, ‘The Death of Alcibiades,’ which after its arrival in England was long mislaid at the academy, but came to light in time to obtain for Severn not only a travelling pension of 130l. for three years, but the repayment of the sum he had expended in going to Rome. It must be said that the hopes which inspired this liberality were disappointed; Severn did not achieve any considerable eminence as a painter. But ‘the death of Keats and my devoted friendship,’ he says, ‘had become a kind of passport to the English in Rome, and I soon found myself in the midst of not only the most polished society, but the most Christian in the world—I mean in the sense of humanity, of cheerfulness, of living for others rather than ourselves. This was invaluable as the introduction to my future patrons and the foundation of valuable and lasting friendships.’ By friendship, patronage, and commissions from distinguished visitors to Rome, Severn prospered in the world. He painted some historical or imaginative works, such as ‘Greek Shepherds,’ ‘The Death of Alexander,’ ‘Endymion,’ an idealised representation of Keats; and an altar-piece from the ‘Apocalypse,’ placed, after great opposition, in the church of San Paolo fuori delle Mura. He also painted portraits and numerous pictures from modern Roman life, of which ‘The Roman Ave Maria,’ engraved in Mr. Sharp's biography, a commission from the Emperor Nicholas, now in the Imperial Gallery at St. Petersburg, is a good specimen.
He will nevertheless be best remembered, even as an artist, by his connection with Keats, whom he painted both living and from memory. Severn's best portrait a half-length miniature—belongs to Sir Charles Dilke [see art. KEATS, JOHN]. During Severn's first residence at Rome much of his time and thoughts was occupied by tasteless designs for a monument to Keats and by ineffectual efforts to get Keats's biography written.
About 1825 Severn became enamoured of Elizabeth, daughter of Archibald, lord Montgomerie (d. 1814), a ward of the Countess of Westmorland [see under Montgomerie, Hugh, twelfth Earl of Eglinton]. The countess habitually resided in Italy, and had been one of his warmest patrons. Her violent and unreasonable opposition to the match, however, postponed it until October 1828. The marriage proved a happy one, and, although he became involved in a harassing lawsuit, his career was generally prosperous. The education of his children was probably his motive for returning to England, a step which, though planned in 1838, was not effected until 1841. The nineteen years of his English residence were uneventful, except for the zeal with which he threw himself into the Westminster Hall cartoon competition and his influence upon Milnes's ‘Life of Keats.’ His pictures were chiefly reminiscences of Italian scenery and manners, such as the view of the Campagna painted for Mr. Gladstone, and ‘Shelley in the Coliseum,’ painted for Sir Percy Shelley. He also executed an ‘Ariel,’ a graceful and delicate conception, engraved in Mr. Sharp's biography. He enjoyed the cordial friendship of Eastlake, George Richmond, and Mr. Ruskin; but his pictures did not find much acceptance with the public, and he came to occupy himself more and more with literature. Some specimens of his attempts at fiction are preserved in Mr. Sharp's volumes, and abundantly manifest his lack of vocation. He planned an illustrated edition of ‘Adonais,’ and wrote some notes towards it, but the undertaking did not proceed far. Frederic Locker-Lampson describes him in 1859 as a ‘jaunty, fresh-natured, irresponsible sort of elderly being, leading a facile, slipshod, dressing-gowny, artistic existence in Pimlico’ (My Confidences, p. 342).
In 1860 the British consulship at Rome became vacant by the resignation of Charles Newton, who returned to the British Museum, and shortly afterwards became Severn's son-in-law. It was probably at Newton's suggestion that Severn applied for the appointment, which he obtained, mainly by the interest of Mr. Gladstone and Bunsen. Long residence had familiarised him with the Roman social atmosphere; a further recommendation was his liberality of opinion, which, in his capacity as acting Italian as well as British consul, he evinced by frequent interpositions on behalf of persons obnoxious to the papal government. Looking and passing for a much younger man than he actually was, he retained his office with credit until 1872, when he retired on a pension. He continued to live in Rome, painting almost to the last, and died there on 3 Aug. 1879. His remains were at first interred in the new cemetery, but ultimately removed and deposited by the side of Keats. He lost no opportunity of manifesting that devotion to the memory of his friend to which he is indebted for the better part of his own celebrity.
Of Severn's six children, three, Walter, Arthur, and Ann Mary, afterwards married to Sir Charles Newton [see Newton, Ann Mary], became artists of note.
[The principal authority upon Severn is Mr. William Sharp's Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, 1892, drawn up from copious manuscript material. See also art. Keats, John, and the biographies of Keats by Lord Houghton and Mr. Sidney Colvin; Dilke's Papers of a Critic, i. 17; Athenæum, 1879; Dublin University Mag. vol. xcvi.]