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Poetry, Paintings and Landscape Art at Hampstead Heath in London

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

Hampstead Heath not only has a beautiful village to wander around, it also has luscious wild forests, lakes and old houses including the home of the romantic poet John Keats and paintings, sculptures and landscape art at Kenwood House.

There are references to poetry and Keats all across Hampstead who moved there in 1817 and he eventually moved to Wentworth Place where he wrote much of his poetry and this area was frequented by many other writers and artists including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge - it is clear that this green space in London was deeply inspirational for many artists. There is a free guided trail in Hampstead Heath to follow which outlines the homes to visit of Ian Fleming, George Orwell, William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Sigmund Freud, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and H.G.Wells:

It is believed that the poems "Bards of passion and of mirth" and "Fancy" were inspired by Wentworth Place's garden and living next door (the house was divided into separate living spaces) was Fanny Brawne who Keats fell in love with and later became engaged to before dying at the early age of 25 from tuberculosis.

BARDS of Passion and of Mirth,

Ye have left your souls on earth!

Have ye souls in heaven too,

Doubled-lived in regions new?

Yes, and those of heaven commune         

With the spheres of sun and moon;

With the noise of fountains wondrous,

And the parle of voices thund'rous;

With the whisper of heaven's trees

And one another, in soft ease  

Seated on Elysian lawns

Browsed by none but Dian's fawns;

Underneath large blue-bells tented,

Where the daisies are rose-scented,

And the rose herself has got  

Perfume which on earth is not;

Where the nightingale doth sing

Not a senseless, trancèd thing,

But divine melodious truth;

Philosophic numbers smooth;  

Tales and golden histories

Of heaven and its mysteries.

(From 'Bards of Passion and Mirth' by John Keats.)

The house was owned by his friend Charles Armitage Brown who wrote the following about Keats and his poem "Ode to a Nightingale":

"In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of our nightingale."

'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil' by Averil Burleigh for an edition of Keats' poetry published in 1911. The poem of the same title was based on a tragic story from Boccaccio's Decameron (IV,5.) in which a young woman buries the head of her lover, who was murdered by her brothers, in a pot of basil which she pines over.

"And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,  

And she forgot the blue above the trees,

And she forgot the dells where waters run,  

And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;        

She had no knowledge when the day was done,  

And the new morn she saw not: but in peace

Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,

And moisten’d it with tears unto the core."

(From Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil by John Keats.)

On the north of Hampstead Heath is Kenwood House which is a lovely visit - the grounds were landscaped in the 1790s by the famous landscape architect Humphry Repton, who was inspired by paintings of the landscapes of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Two Piece Reclining Figure, No. 5, (1963-1964) sculpture by Henry Moore on the grounds.

Monolyth-Empyrean (1953) sculpture by Barbara Hepworth in the gardens.

The house is full of old paintings of lords and ladies including 63 Old Master (painters of skill in Europe before the 1800s) paintings and there are many notable artworks including work by Rembrandt and art inspired by mythology and full of story.

'Miss Cocks and her Niece' by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1789.) Many wealthy families commissioned family portraits in the 18th century - often these displayed images in elite homes were used to convey the family's authority, status and wealth to visitors. Joshua Reynolds was an English painter, specialising in portraits.

'Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825)' by David Martin (c.1778.) The story of Dido is a fascinating one. She was born in the British West Indies in 1761 - her mother was Maria, an enslaved African lady and her father, Sir John Lindsay, was a naval officer stationed there. Lindsay took Belle when she was just four years old back to England where she was raised by Lindsay's uncle William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield at Kenwood House with his wife Elizabeth Murray. She was educated as a gentlewoman with another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray who is also in this painting and these two women were second cousins. Belle had a very close relationship with Lord Mansfield and worked as his secretary, staying at the house for 31 years and she grew up as a member of the Murray family. Belle married a Frenchman, John Davinier, who was a gentleman's steward and she had three sons, although she died at the relatively young age of 43. A film, 'Belle' was made of her story and its portrayal of her close relationship with Lord Mansfield is meant to be well depicted, although the occupation of John Davinier was changed in the film.

'Mrs Musters as 'Hebe'' (c.1782) by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Here Sophia Musters is depicted as the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe who was the daughter of Zeus and Hera. One of Zeus' eagles (or her father in the guise of an eagle) is eating nectar from her bowl as she waits for her wedding to the hero Heracles on Mount Olympus which was the home of the Gods. She was admired by many and had her own personal cult and temple in Greece and was a cup-bearer to the gods, serving them nectar and ambrosia. Hebe was a popular subject in art in the period of 1750 to 1880 and many ladies commissioned portraits as Hebe where they just needed to wear a flowing dress and the artist would add the extra details - in France, they coined the term "en Hébé" for the costume.

'Mrs Tollemache as Miranda' (1773-4) by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In this painting, Reynolds portrayed Anna Maria Tollemache as she played the role of Miranda in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. In this scene Miranda has glimpsed her husband-to-be, Ferdinand, who arrives from Naples by sea and she raises her hands in amazement at this first young man she has seen. Prospero, her father is watching from behind the tree.

Sculpture in the library - 'Marble bust of Zeus Ammon' (first century AD), a Roman copy made from a Greek original of a Greco-Egyptian god (Ammon was the Egyptian counterpart of Zeus.)

Ceiling painting in the library - there are 19 in total and they were painted by Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi in 1769. This painting is entitled 'Epithalamium' (wedding poem) - this was a Greek type of a poem that was written for a bride on the way to her marital chamber and the Roman poet Catullus wrote a famous epithalamium.

The title of this painting is 'The Rape of Europa.' In the Greek mythological story of Europa, she was abducted by Zeus after morphing into the form of a bull who enticed her to climb on his back, he then rode into the sea and carried her to Crete where she became the queen and had three children with Zeus. The word Europe is derived from this goddess - and in its etymology it includes the elements of 'wide' and 'eye or face,' hence Europe has a meaning of 'wide-gazing' or 'broad of aspect.'

'Self-Portrait with Two Circles' by Rembrandt (between 1665 and 1669.)

'The Guitar Player' by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1672.)

The Hill Garden and Pergola is exquisitely beautiful and I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this western area of the heath. It was created between 1910 and 1925 by Thomas Mawson for the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme.

Green pool in the heath.

A beautiful moment when a mother and father swan cleared the pathway and eventually lead their cygnets out of the water and onto the path as they headed towards another pool in Hampstead Heath, London. 11th July 2019.

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