â€˜Give me books, fruit, French wine, and fine weather and a little music out of doors, and I can pass a summer very happilyâ€™ John Keats
The Progress of The Day, 2020 Oil on canvas 150cm x 100cm
KEATS-SHELLEY HOUSE ROME
NA NCY CA DOGA N A collection of works inspired by Keats to commemorate the bicentennial of his death.
31 OCTOBER 2020 27 FEBRUARY 2021
With huge thanks to Giuseppe Albano, Margaret Behan and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association for offering me this show. To Philly Adams, Simon Martin, Jo Baring and Dan Swift for their incredible contributions to this catalogue and my thinking â€“ which I could not be more excited and grateful to present. To Sarah Bourghardt for your kind counsel. To Filly Wadlow and Nicole Dearden for keeping the show on the road. To Millie Scott for accidentally coming to work and becoming the model. To Delia Simonetti, Eugenio Mazzetto and Cara Brady for producing another incredible film. To Lydia Leonard, Sophie von Haselberg and Paul Sloss for their wonderful readings of Keatsâ€™s poems. To Lydia Forte and Rocco Forte Hotels for our collaboration. To Alan and Caroline Howard for your wonderful friendship and support. To Rob Walmsley at Teacake Design for this wonderful catalogue. To the incredibly patient Ed Guinness for holding my hand and sitting in the studio and keeping us laughing all the time.
Like all great friendships, this show has been a wonderful collaboration between poetry and painting, friends and colleagues and I am grateful for every part of it.
Nancy Cadogan – Artist’s Statement
Giuseppe Albano – Introduction to the Museum
Margaret Behan – Great Friendship
Simon Martin – Painting with Gusto
Jo Baring – A Threshold
Philippa Adams – Notes from Saatchi
Daniel Swift – Keats and Life
I could not be more thrilled to be showing these works in the Keats-Shelley House alongside their programme of celebrations for the bicentennial of Keats’s death. I was hugely delighted when my dear friend Margaret Behan and Giuseppe Albano suggested a show at Keats-Shelley House, following on from my painting of a volume of Keats in Still Reading, 2017. In this show I have tried to combine all my interests under the generous umbrella of Keats’s incredible poetry, while thinking about his short life. Without direct reference to the poems, these are meditations about the act of creating, about trying to find space and time to be able to make work which became paramount during the improbable lockdown of the summer. They are also a celebration of Keats, and his sensuous romantic evocation of life. None of us could have known that Covid would grip the world and bring with it immediate and personal responses for every single person. For me, it made making work about Keats’s last days, in the company of his dear friend Joseph Severn incredibly, almost unbearably poignant. Nancy Cadogan Artist
I hope these paintings do justice to their story.
A Realm of Gold, 2020 Oil on canvas 150cm x 100cm
Dreaming of Rome I, 2020 Oil on canvas 150cm x 100cm
Introduction to the Museum
The Keats-Shelley House is a museum dedicated to the secondgeneration English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by, Italy. It is housed in the final home of John Keats by the Spanish Steps in the centre of Rome. The historic core of the building contains our library, exhibition space, and the apartment rented by John Keats and the artist Joseph Severn from November 1820 to February 1821. On display there is a collection of paintings and portraits, busts and miniatures, relics and first editions, letters and literary manuscripts from our permanent collection, and we have a year-round programme of cultural events, conferences, and exhibitions, the latest of which is Nancy Cadogan’s Gusto. The bicentenaries of the deaths of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley in 2021 and 2022, and launch of Keats-Shelley200, with its rich programme of educational projects, exhibitions, and events in the UK and Italy, provide an apt time for celebrating the poets’ extraordinary legacies, as well as looking to the future. The KeatsShelley200 campaign, launched by the Keats-Shelley House in Rome in collaboration with the British charity which cares for the museum, focuses on the final years of the lives of both poets, and includes celebrations of the bicentenaries of major works and events, such as Keats’s arrival in Italy and the publication of Shelley’s Adonais, as well as the poets’ untimely deaths within eighteen months of one another in Italy two centuries ago. Nancy Cadogan’s exhibition straddles two key bicentenary dates from the annals of Keats’s life: 31st October 2020, the date of the exhibition’s opening, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Keats’s disembarkation at Naples where, desperately ill and mortally exhausted, the young poet set foot on dry land after a ten day quarantine aboard the sailing brig the Maria Crowther, which had brought him to Italy from London. 31st October 1820 was Keats’s twenty-fifth, and final, birthday, and he was able at least to see a little of the city of Naples before making his way by land to Rome to take up lodging in Piazza di Spagna. The exhibition runs until the end of February 2021, taking in the bicentennial anniversary of the poet’s death in Romeon 23rd February.
Giuseppe Albano Director Keats-Shelley House
As we commemorate our anniversaries and pause to reflect on Keats’s tragic death, we can celebrate the vitality and vibrancy of Nancy’s work, which is in turn inspired by romantic literature and by the mythopoetic lure of Italy which had drawn Keats, Shelley and generations of creative spirits here. And the fact that Gusto was devised and developed amidst the health and economic crises, lockdowns and travel restrictions which haunted much of the world in 2020 is testament to Nancy’s determination as an artist. We applaud this hard work and are immensely pleased to be able to host Gusto in Rome at this challenging, interesting time.
“The crown of these Is made of love and friendship, and sits high Upon the forehead of humanity”
The collaboration between Nancy Cadogan and the Keats-Shelley House is a wonderful symbiosis. I have known both Nancy and the House all my life and I derive deep personal pleasure in bringing the two worlds together. Joseph Severn was my great-great-great grandfather and I am following a family tradition of serving as a trustee of the Keats-Shelley Association. One of England’s greatest poets, dying painfully in obscurity at the tender age of 25 years old, is a heavy subject for an art show but I knew that Nancy would create an exhibition of poignant but positive reflection.
Born into a family of academics, Nancy has often utilised her passion for literature to produce profoundly emotional and evocative art. I am proud of how devotedly my forebear looked after his friend in Rome. Working with my best friend to bring vibrancy and dazzling colour into the House over the bicentenary seems an appropriate acknowledgement. Friendships are a central theme in the Keats story and the current climate has made us all reflect and appreciate our own.
Ways to Tell a Story, 2020
Margaret Behan Trustee Keats-Shelley Association
Everybody agreed that Keats was an exceptional friend. John Hamilton Reynolds remembered him as, “the sincerest friend, - the most loveable associate, - the deepest listener to the griefs and disappointments of all around him, that ever lived in the tide of times.” We learn the most about Keats’s friendships in his private correspondence– with true friends we can be our most authentic. For T.S Eliot, “His letters are what letters ought to be: the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.” Keats revelled in his friendships claiming, “I could not live without the love of my friends”. His friends were his champions, true believers in his genius in an unappreciative society and were central to the joy he took in life. The passage to Rome marks a journey to a different realm. In this new world even the physical ability to write is slipping away: “ ‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter…” he writes to Charles Armitage Brown shortly after his arrival in Rome. News from home pains him: “I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”
He confesses, “I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you.” Those he loves are transforming from flesh and blood to intangible spirits. His sister, Frances, now “walks about my imagination like a ghost” He concludes evocatively, “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” It is the last known letter he wrote.
He shares the picture with my grandmother Sheila Birkenhead who Nancy loved as a child. She was a longstanding Chairman of the Association and her book Against Oblivion was Nancy’s introduction to the Severn story. This picture is the most personal piece in the show for Nancy: “It’s about the people who have told the story before me and also how I got here. I loved the idea of bringing Sheila back into the museum!”
Keats’s “posthumous existence” is reflected in the collection of paintings: ‘The Light is Outside’ where Nancy evokes the isolation in the contraction of both men’s worlds. They are far from home physically and emotionally – the light, colours, smell and noise coming from outside are as alien to them as the complexity of their individual predicaments. It is unlikely that Severn would have been Keats’s first choice friend as a deathbed companion. Dr Clark, who treated Keats in Rome, was not alone in expressing considerable concern over Severn’s suitability for the role. Severn admits that he was “one quite unused and not at all capable.” Yet when the test came, Severn rose to meet it remarkably. He kept house and nursed Keats devotedly to the end. After it was over he collapsed, having not slept for nine days. Friendship and love can enable feats of superhuman resilience. Severn was aided in this by a buoyant personality, a quiet strong religious faith and the support of his friends from afar. A letter from Leigh Hunt, which arrived after Keats had already died, perfectly illustrates that sustenance and gave Severn immense solace: “tell that great poet and noble-hearted man that we shall bear his memory in the most precious part of our hearts, and that the world shall bow their heads to it, as our loves do.”
It is entirely appropriate that Joseph Severn doesn’t get his own picture to himself – he is always part of someone else’s story. His career was eventful and uneven. He had moderate success as a painter in Rome after Keats’s death but this was followed by years of being pursued by creditors before securing the post of British Consul in Rome at the age of 67. He was keenly aware that he was much obliged to Keats: “I owe almost everything to him, my best friends as well as my artistic prosperity, my general happiness as well as my best inspirations… I thank God I am so happy as to live to see his growing fame. It will be to my lasting honour to be bound up with him.” Severn’s long life - he died at 85 years old - enabled the bleakness and bare anonymity of Keats’s headstone to be uplifted with a matching stone with the Epitaph: “To the memory of JOSEPH SEVERN, Devoted friend and death bed companion of JOHN KEATS, whom he lived to see numbered among The Immortal Poets of England.” It is decorated with the palette of the painter.
There are only two portraits of Keats and Severn in Nancy’s show. In the small vignette of Keats, Nancy reimagines the famous sketch Severn drew to keep awake during a bad night. She illuminates it with vibrancy and pathos in ethereal blues and greens. In a poignant juxtaposition with the pained youthfulness of Keats, the small portrait of Joseph Severn is one of him contented in his old age.
I wish my dear friend every success with her exhibition.
Ways to Tell a Story, 2020 Oil on canvas 101cm x 82cm Dreaming of Rome II, 2020 Oil on canvas 150cm x 100cm
Painter, adieu! How well our arts agree, Poetic picture, painted poetry… (Last Instructions to a Painter, c.1667, probably Andrew Marvell)
Painting with Gusto
The gravestones of two friends stand side-by-side in the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome, the Cimitero Acattolico. Each headstone is carved in low relief: one with a lyre, and the other, with a painter’s palette. This pairing somehow evokes the analogy between painting and poetry, succinctly expressed by the phrase ut pictura poesis (‘as is painting, so is poetry’), which was first coined by the Latin poet Horace in his Ars Poetica (19-10BC). One marks the grave of ‘a young English poet’, John Keats (1795-1821), and the other his friend, the painter, Joseph Severn (1793-1879). Severn had accompanied Keats to Italy and was to nurse him until his death in the house at 26 piazza di Spagna at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Two hundred years later, the dialogue between painting and poetry, and the friendship between the aforementioned painter and poet, sit at the heart of the exhibition Gusto by Nancy Cadogan in this same building, now the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. It is an exhibition and theme that has become more resonant than perhaps might have ever been anticipated due to the world pandemic that has taken place whilst she worked on the group of paintings that form the show, between February and September 2020. Keats’s and Severn’s experiences have odd parallels to life under Covid. The acute awareness of human frailty and the impact of infectious disease was present then, as now. On arrival in the Bay of Naples in September 1820, having sailed to Italy on the Maria Crowther, they were placed in quarantine for ten days due an outbreak of suspected cholera in England, and the fear of infection was such that after Keats’s death from tuberculosis the walls of the house were scraped and the furniture burned. Despite the vitality of Keats’s poetry, the interplay of life and death often feels present in his writing, just as Severn spoke of ‘the extreme brightness of his eyes’ when he was nursing Keats’s in his final weeks. His 1817 poem, On first seeing the Elgin Marbles, opens with the words:
My Anchor, 2020
Simon Martin Director Pallant House Gallery i Keats, March 1817, in John Keats: The Poems, ed. Gerald Bullett, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), p.240 ii Shelley: Selected Poetry, Prose and Letters, ed. A.S.B. Glover, (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1951), p.721 iii Eric Newton, The Romantic Rebellion, London, 1960, p.12.
My spirit is too weak; mortality Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die Like a sick eagle looking at the sky. i And it is there, even in the intensity of the life mask of Keats created by Benjamin Haydon in 1816. As Cadogan has observed, the mask reflects the poet’s ‘knowledge of his position’ and the sense that his eyes were quivering under his eyelids as it was made. Cadogan describes her painting of the life mask as ‘an anchor’ for her exhibition. It was the first work that she created following her return from Rome in February 2020, just weeks before the world went into lockdown due to Covid. Somehow, it seems like a talisman for how so many of us mused on our mortality in the challenging days and nights that followed. The exhibition emerged from Cadogan’s interest in the notion of compressed knowledge, and a series of paintings of still lives of books, but it has
moved beyond the written word to muse on time and space. Instead of knowledge being compressed, the books are invariably open with quills suggesting action, but instead, the room settings convey the sense of being enclosed, and compressed, reflecting Cadogan’s own state during the months of lock-down whilst she worked on the paintings. In a group of four paintings entitled The Light is Outside, created during what Cadogan describes as ‘peak lockdown’ we see table-top still lives of books, quills, and goldfish bowls at different times of the day, with views of open windows beyond. The goldfish bowl, whilst playing homage to Henri Matisse, also serves as a metaphor for how so many people felt in their own homes during lock-down. That sense of ennui, of boredom and enclosure, is described by the artists as the feeling ‘when your world is tight and confined, but you have mental freedom; yet you are struggling to find the time and way to make the work.’ The bottles of laudanum and arsenic are perhaps for when it ‘has got really bad’, a reference perhaps to Keats’s repeated requests for laudanum towards the end, and his questioning of ‘how long is this posthumous existence of mine to go on?’ Whilst the crescent moon in another of the group calls to mind the question asked by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in his poem To the Moon: Art thou pale for weariness Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth, Wandering companionless Among the stars that have a different birth, — And ever changing, like a joyless eye That finds no object worth its constancy?ii In the paintings populated by a contemplative, or sleeping woman, it seems that these works are autobiographical. The dreamlike depiction of a woman with her head folded into her arms, gives a nod to Pablo Picasso’s 1931 series of paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter, but also somehow evokes the feeling of Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 etching Melencolia. Cadogan has said that these works are ‘about finding the space and time to create’, something that as a mother of three has been a challenge during a period of home-schooling. It is a perennial issue for women artists who are mothers, and the black backgrounds of several works further suggest late night working and spaces, but also the notion of a timeless quiet space for calm thinking, like Virginia Woolf ’s belief in the necessity of a ‘room of one’s own’. There is a sense of activity suspended in these works: utter stillness. Yet this is frequently interrupted: a quill in an open book; a flying bird; or in one painting, a spilt glass of red wine that indicates a narrative action. In the background of this work there is an evocation
of Severn’s Posthumous Portrait of Shelley writing Prometheus Unbound (1845) that hangs in the KeatsShelley Memorial House. It is one of a series of pictures within pictures, in which the pictorial spaces are flat and the distances compressed, leading us to ask whether the landscape is a picture or a view, and if this matters. Similarly, in The Progress of the Day there is a depiction of Lake Como, inspired by a letter by Mary Shelley in which she described the drama of the lake. These are ultimately peaceful and optimistic images, and it cannot be chance that Cadogan should wish to dream of Lake Como, where she was married and frequently visits. None of these paintings seek to illustrate Keats’ poems in any literal sense, but rather to explore loose connections; how the poems can be the starting point for a feeling or a mood, bridging people and events in Cadogan’s own lived experience and that of the poet. An example of this is the painting incorporating a stylised ‘thirties portrait of a lady in green, in fact a lady whom Cadogan had known personally: Sheila, Countess of Birkenhead, who had been a key figure in the KeatsShelley Association and the author of Illustrious Friends/ Against Oblivion about the life of Joseph Severn, together with a rendering of a painting by Mary Severn of her husband Joseph pouring over an enormous book. It connects various elements together in a painted form of six degrees of separation. Eric Newton wrote of how, ‘Romanticism is a mode of feeling that can appear at any time in human history, but that only at certain periods and under certain conditions of cultural climate can it find a full and adequate means of expression. Romanticism is an attitude of mind in which any human being, at any time, may, by virtue of his humanity, indulge.’ iii The romantic impulse has flourished at times of conflict and social difficulty when Britain has been culturally most cut off from continental Europe: the ‘Age of Revolution’ and the Napoleonic wars, the years immediately after the First World War and during the Second World War, and perhaps even in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. At such points in history, artists have sought refuge from the harsh reality of the present, painting landscapes of the mind, rather than actual landscapes, and Cadogan’s series of interior/ exterior scenes form a romantic and poetic response not only to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, but to her experiences of living through a pandemic. Simon Martin is a writer, curator and art historian. He is Director of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, UK, a museum of Modern British and contemporary art. He has written numerous books and catalogues including Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art.
My Anchor, 2020 Oil on canvas 36cm x 36cm
An Endless Fountain of Immortal Drink, 2020 Oil on canvas 150cm x 100cm
The concept of liminality was developed in the early twentieth century. Coming from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning a threshold, it refers to that ambiguous transitional place between one point in time and the next, where we wait as we move from the familiar into the unknown. It is an area of uncertainty where the foregrounding of our own agency is both disorientating and uncomfortable. The paintings in Gusto were all created in the immense, collective liminal space of the 2020 global pandemic. Nancy Cadogan has grappled not only with the high anxieties of her personal experiences in the lockdown, but those of our world which, in the present time, is a vexed one. It is in this context that her familiar ‘Blue Ladies’ take on their most significance to date. They set the tone of reflection; all three figures are in an ambiguous narrative. They are waiting, but for what? It is a psychological space with which we are all now familiar. The ‘Blue Ladies’ are only autobiographical in that they are the conduits for our understanding, our way in to discovering the sense of place in which Cadogan was working, helping us to decode - or at least signpost - our emotions. Cadogan has painted the ladies in Dreaming of Rome I and Dreaming of Rome II with their eyes closed - but are they closed in anguish or have they found calm? I find a sense of peace in these paintings. Cadogan has captured a formal classical sensibility in them. She has found a way to portray the sense of strength which comes from letting go, both physically and emotionally. Contrast their closed eyes to those of Keats himself in the life mask painted in My Anchor. Here the eyes are closed in active angst, clearly showing what Joseph Severn, the friend who nursed Keats in Rome, remembered as the poet’s ‘great emotion at his cruel destiny’. Cadogan has captured the same active emotion in her series of four paintings The Light is Outside. Here she shows in paint on canvas how physical confinement brings a longing for the outside world. This longing is a strong force but Cadogan has transmuted it into an appreciation of the importance of our imagined world. Gusto is an exhibition which is, at its core, a reflection on time. By Night with its candles and portrayal of night-time creativity and work, brings a reminder not only of how our normal rhythms of time changed during lockdown, but how society creates ‘approved’ rhythms. Stepping outside these might bring more creative impetus. In a similar way, The Progress of The Day is a defiantly positive portrayal of this ‘mid-time’. Based on Mary Shelley’s famed trip to Lake Como, Cadogan captures the peacefulness and serenity of this moment - the importance of the ‘pregnant pause’. Jo Baring Director The Ingram Collection of Modern British & Contemporary Art
Liminal spaces can be places of immense personal transformation and creativity. Rather than fixed images, the paintings of Gusto we can step into, in our imaginations. The rich palette Cadogan has chosen adds to this idea of a space in mid-time heavy with opportunity, if only we let ourselves imagine, close our eyes and dream.
By Night, 2020 Oil on canvas 50cm x 50cm
The Light is Outside I, 2020 Oil on canvas 92cm x 76cm
The Light is Outside II, 2020 Oil on canvas 92cm x 76cm
The Light is Outside III, 2020 Oil on canvas 92cm x 76cm
The Light is Outside IV, 2020 Oil on canvas 92cm x 76cm
Back to Books, 2020 Oil on canvas 50cm x 50cm
Notes from Saatchi
I first met Nancy on a trip to Barcelona organised by Nico Kos, and was caught up by a magical and generous abundance she shared with others, a capacity to bring laughter and ease. Unfamiliar with her work I was delighted and absorbed by a catalogue she gave me from a past exhibition, ‘Still Reading’, responding to certain books. A clear lover of literature and poetry she wrote a little about each painting and how each book resonated to her personally, that revealed so much and took you deeper into the paintings, sharing a dialogue with Nancy, brilliant. From there a friendship grew and I invited her to consider a show at Saatchi Gallery and included Nico to write the essay, culminating in a beautiful exhibition ‘Mind Zero’. Nancy for me is an alchemist, equipped to transport us through subtle shifts of narrative, albeit abstract in composition, paired with a confidence and understanding of light and colour, a painters’ painter. With an ability to go deep into her subject, it’s difficult not to be drawn into these chapters or moments of contemplation, it’s very arresting and illuminating and becomes personal to the viewer, intimate and open. Equally her paintings have an ability to dance, to lift the spirit or deliver you a moment’s solitude.
Philippa Adams Independent Curator and Director of Saatchi Gallery
With this new exhibition Nancy has found resonance without being too drawn into the darker, more obvious paths. The emotional challenge of reacting to Keats and his work during the solitude of a lockdown has produced reflection and introspection, culminating in an exciting and beautiful response. Nancy’s navigation of the subject is sensitive to her own emotions, while being considerate of Keats. Like a captain at sea, she has captured an intimacy, a rhythm, found the pulse and set sail.
Full of Sweet Dreams, 2020 Oil on canvas 180cm x 150cm
An Airy Citadel, 2020 Oil on canvas 150cm x 100cm
Keats and Life
It has long been tempting to see Keats as sickly, fragile; as a beautiful young poet, always doomed. It has been tempting to see him through the prism of his early death, and to cast backwards from his final days in Rome the portrait of one gripped by gloom and the end of things. A Keats of death masks and decaying fruit, coughed up blood on the bedsheets; a Keats for whom the body gives out and illusions unravel. Many fine studies have done exactly this. But this portrait misses much. As in his much-quoted lines from “Ode to a Nightingale”: Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme. Half in love with easeful death, certainly: but what about the other half, that in love with rushing life? In those same lines that odd word “Darkling” is perilously close to a lover’s “darling,” and in that same ode Keats writes perhaps the greatest embrace of worldly pleasure in all of literary history. Say it aloud, and bring it to life again: An Airy Citadel, 2020
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South. One question we ask of the great poets is: which version, of the many offered, is the one most true for you? This is why some poems bear endless rereading, and is why the lives of some poets bear rewriting. In this particular case, we might put the same question in a more Keatsian way. Which is his season? Is it the Keats of autumn turning to winter, with cold approaching? Or is it the Keats of late summer warmth? (Keats teaches us that on closer inspection all the seasons turn out to be in-between). Is he the nightingale who in “beechen green, and shadows numberless,/ Singest of summer in full-throated ease”? Keats’s greatest ode to the seasons is “To Autumn”:
Daniel Swift Academic and writer
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines.
He wrote these lines in September 1819, in Winchester, after a walk in the countryside. “I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm,” he wrote to a friend about that day. Keats is perhaps the least fundamentalist of poets, for things are always changing, growing, and most of all he loves the warmth. Here is another portrait of Keats: an athletic, solid young man, who trained as a surgeon; who was skilled at setting bones and dressing wounds; he set himself the discipline of writing forty lines of poetry a day; he loved practical jokes. What else did he love? “I never drink now above three glasses of wine” he wrote to his sister and brother in February 1819, which was the miraculous year in which he wrote the Odes: “now I like Claret whenever I can have Claret I must drink it… If you could make some wine like Claret to drink on summer evenings in an arbour! For really ’t is so fine—it fills one’s mouth with a gushing freshness—then goes down cool and feverless—then you do not feel it quarrelling with your liver—no it is rather a Peace maker and lies as quiet as it did in the grape—then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee; and the more ethereal Part of it mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad-house looking for his trull and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the wainstcoat, but rather walks like Aladdin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step… I said this same claret is the only palate-passion I have—I forgot game—I must plead guilty to the breast of a Partridge, the back of a hare, the backbone of a grouse, the wing and side of a Pheasant and a Woodcock passim.” It is worth quoting at length for the sensation of the loss of control, how each thing must lead to one more, how he is so hungry, so thirsty for more, even in his syntax. Keats’s letters and poems in this way achieve the quality of what Hazlitt calls “gusto”: the sense of being “sensitive and alive all over; not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling in itself.” And it is of course flesh—if you will forgive the pun—that Keats is hungry for, in that amazing bloodthirsty list: partridge, hare, grouse, pheasant, woodcock.
Keats was a great poet of reading: it sounds dry and unKeatsian to say so, but his vision of reading is an enchanted, alive rapture. An early sonnet opens with Keats reading. “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,/ And many goodly states and kingdoms seen,” he begins, and these travels are his reading of the classics, particularly Homer. But then he is transformed by reading Homer in a particular translation, that by the late sixteenth century playwright George Chapman: “Yet did I never breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” Now reading has become breathing, and seeing has become hearing. The senses roll into one another: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.” The poem closes with Keats transported into a fantasy of faraway, as if he were some adventurer, “stout Cortez,” gazing upon the newly discovered Pacific ocean from a mountaintop. This is the best poem about reading I know, in part because it is hardly a poem about reading at all, but instead about the transport that reading might enable. Books are a diving board. Books—opened and laid down; by a window, by a view—are a frequent motif in Nancy Cadogan’s paintings, and her books are sensuous objects, possessing a kind of Keatsian synaesthesia, or confusion of the senses. Touch and sight; taste and hearing. As Keats wrote to his sister: “Give me Books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors, played by somebody I do not know—not pay the price of one’s time for a jig—but a little chance music: and I can pass a summer very quietly.” Reading is one strand in a cluster of pleasures. For Keats, even reading was a deeply sensual act: books are to be eaten, lived, touched. “I long to feast upon old Homer” he writes in one of his letters, and he signs off one with the command: “tear from the book of life all blank leaves.” In another he insists, “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses,” and “We read fine things, but never feel them to the full until we have gone on the same steps as the author.”
It is in this alive, sensual way that Keats’s poems are also great acts of reading in another sense, that of interpretation (as an art historian or critic might do a reading of a painting, or a literary critic might do a reading of a poem). They interpret objects and elements of the world: the nightingale, the seasons, a translation of a classical poem. And even in this apparently dry pursuit they are most alive. “The investigate the value and nature of the creative process,” writes Keats’s biographer Andrew Motion, of the Odes (of course Keats’s biographer would be named Motion): “They explore the relation between conscious and unconscious forces, between art and life, and between ‘philosophy’ and ‘sensation’. They parallel sexual feelings with mental activity. They struggle to transcend time, and are fully aware of being written within time.” Much of this sounds abstract, but it need not be so, for these poems are in themselves dramas, minor battles, wars with themselves. “As their themes mingle and clash,” Motion continues, “they create an extraordinary combination of inwardness and sociability.” They are poems deeply about and for the senses which also return obsessively to the limits of the senses. As in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone. Keats is a great poet of something just out of hearing; of something longed for and almost touched; of the process of reaching for it more than its completion. A late letter to Fanny Brawne crystallises much of this: the Keats of summer; the longing for more. “Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is” he begins, with what is either optimism or irony or an odd mingling of the two. “Death must come at last,” he notes, “but before that is my fate I feign would try what more pleasures than you have given so sweet a creature as you can give. Let me have another opportunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember’d. Take care of yourself dear that we may both be well in summer.” Daniel Swift; academic and writer whose books include Bomber County and The Bughouse: the Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound and edited the poems of John Berryman.
Small Thought I, 2020 Oil on canvas 36cm x 36cm
Small Thought II, 2020 Oil on canvas 36cm x 36cm
Small Thought III, 2020 Oil on canvas 36cm x 36cm
Belmond Cadogan Hotel Collaboration, London
2011 21st Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair, London
What We See, Gillian Jason Gallery, London
Art for Charity Auction, Christieâ€™s, Milan
Wall of Small, Lyndsey Ingram Gallery, London
Recent Paintings, Solo Show, Sladmore Contemporary, London
Group Show, GrandyArt, Smithfield Gallery, London
2019 Astrup Fearnley Museet Auction, Oslo 2019
Footnotes, British Art Fair, Saatchi Gallery, London
Grand Beginnings, GrandyArt, Arndean Gallery, London
Mind Zero, Saatchi Gallery, London
Recent Paintings: Utah Landscapes, Frost and Reed Gallery, NYC
Still Reading, Sladmore Contemporary and Shapero Rare Books, London
Recent Paintings: Morocco, Frost and Reed Gallery, NYC
The Blue Edition, 68 Kinnerton Street, London
2016 Art Southampton, Miami 2016
A Sense of Place, Art Bastion, Miami
2003 Gallery 47, London 2002
Graduation Show, Mall Galleries, London