Kenyon, John (DNB00)


KENYON, JOHN (1784–1856), poet and philanthropist, was born in 1784 in the parish of Trelawney, Jamaica, where his father owned extensive sugar plantations. His mother was a daughter of John Simpson of Bounty Hall in the same parish, also a sugar planter. Both parents died while Kenyon was a boy at Fort Bristol School, Bristol. Thence he went for a time to the Charterhouse, and after some desultory dabbling in experimental science at Nicholson's Philosophical Institute, Soho, proceeded in 1802 to Peterhouse, Cambridge. Kenyon left Cambridge without a degree in 1808, married, and settled at Woodlands, between Alfoxden and Nether Stowey in Somerset. Here he made the acquaintance of Thomas Poole [q. v.], and through him of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Charles Lamb, and an ever-widening circle of men of letters. Rich, and without ambition, he spent his life in society, travel, dilettantism, dining, and dispensing charity. Among the first to profit by his philanthropy were Coleridge's family. In later life he distributed his alms in a systematic manner through the medium of sisters of charity, who investigated every case. At Paris in 1817 Kenyon met Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature, who corresponded with him for years, and introduced to him many Americans, to whom his house was always open. Among these were Bayard Taylor and James T. Fields.

Other of Kenyon's friends about this period were Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall) [q. v.], Augustus William Hare [q. v.], Julius Charles Hare [q. v.], and Crabb Robinson [q. v.] At Fiesole in 1830 he met Landor, who when in England was frequently his guest, and wrote part of ‘Orestes at Delphos’ under his roof. Kenyon was one of Southey's travelling companions on his French tour in 1838, and when, to procure him complete relief, they persuaded him to play, as if in jest, the part of a prince, while they divided among themselves the offices of his suite, Kenyon selected that of master of the horse, and made all the necessary arrangements for posting. Meeting Browning at a dinner-party, he discovered in him the son of one of his schoolfellows at Fort Bristol, whom he had lost sight of. This was the beginning of a warm and close friendship broken only by death. Kenyon first introduced Browning, at the house of her parents, to Elizabeth Barrett, a distant relative and soi-disant cousin of Kenyon, who became Browning's wife. To Kenyon Browning dedicated his ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.’ Failing to procure for Kenyon a copy of the picture of ‘Andrea del Sarto and his wife’ in the Pitti Palace, Browning wrote and sent to him from Florence the poem ‘Andrea del Sarto.’ When the Brownings visited England, Kenyon's house was their home, and here in 1856 Mrs. Browning finished ‘Aurora Leigh,’ and dedicated it to Kenyon in grateful remembrance of a friendship ‘far beyond the common uses of mere relationship and sympathy of mind.’

Kenyon was early left a widower, and in 1823 married Caroline, sister of John Curteis, a wealthy bachelor, whose residence, 39 Devonshire Place, he shared when in London. He had also a villa at Torquay, and others in later life at Wimbledon (Lime Cottage) and Cowes. His second wife died on 7 Aug. 1835, and her brother on 27 April 1849, leaving Kenyon the bulk of his property, amounting to 100,000l., great part of which with characteristic generosity he made over to the next-of-kin, some distant relatives of the testator.

Crabb Robinson says that Kenyon had ‘the face of a Benedictine monk and the joyous talk of a good fellow;’ other of his friends saw in him an idealised impersonation of the Mr. Pickwick of Seymour's plates. He was the beau ideal of a host, his exuberant geniality communicating itself as by a contagion to his guests, and bringing people of the most opposite characters into sympathetic accord. He was also, like his friend Philip Courtenay, Q.C., a thorough gastronome. On one occasion he commended to his guests' attention one of the earliest brace of canvas-backed ducks ever seen in Europe, with an exhortation ‘not to talk, but to eat and think.’ He died after a lingering and painful illness at Cowes on 3 Dec. 1856, and was buried in the vault belonging to his wife's family in Lewisham churchyard. By his will he divided his property between his friends and various charities, the largest legacy, 10,000l., being taken by Browning. A portrait of Kenyon in oils by William Fisher, the property of Mr. George Scharf, C.B., F.S.A., is at the National Portrait Gallery. Another, by the same artist, a companion picture to the Landor in the National Portrait Gallery, was in the possession of Sir George Scharf, and was exhibited in the Victorian Exhibition (No. 223) held in London in 1892. A marble bust of him, done at Rome in 1841 by T. Crawford, was in the possession of Browning. A lithograph of a half-length in water-colours, by Moore, was presented by him to his friends; and a fine cameo profile of him was executed by Saulini at Rome.

Kenyon published ‘A Rhymed Plea for Tolerance,’ London, 1833, 8vo; ‘Poems, for the most part occasional,’ London, 1838, 8vo; and ‘A Day at Tivoli, with other Verses,’ London, 1849, 8vo. These productions hardly pass muster as poetry. The ‘Rhymed Plea’ is a didactic dialogue in the heroic couplet on the duty of tempering religious zeal with charity. The other two volumes contain some graceful verses.

[Many interesting reminiscences and anecdotes of Kenyon are collected by Mrs. Andrew Crosse in Temple Bar, April 1890, January 1892, and references to him occur in Southey's Life, Ticknor's Life, Letters, and Journals, L'Estrange's Life of Mary Russell Mitford, Horne's Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ingram's Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Crabb Robinson's Diary, Clayden's Rogers and his Contemporaries, Macready's Reminiscences, Field's Old Acquaintance. See also Forster's Life of Landor; Sharp's Life of Robert Browning; Mrs. Sutherland Orr's Life and Letters of Robert Browning, pp. 105, 145, 154, 209; Sandford's Thomas Poole and his Friends, ii. 312; Gent. Mag. 1835 pt. ii. p. 331, 1849 pt. i. p. 664, 1857 pt. i. pp. 105, 309; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vii. 285; Edinburgh Review, xlviii. 401 et seq.; Blackwood, xliv. 779 et seq.; North American Review, xlviii. 401 et seq. Material for the present sketch has also been furnished by Mr. George Scharf of the National Portrait Gallery.]

J. M. R.