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A young John Keats steps into the public gaze as a new discovery brings him back to life at Bonhams
This spellbinding image is estimated to attract £10,000-15,000 when it is auctioned. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- The literary and artistic worlds will be astounded this week to meet a unique image of the poet, John Keats which has surfaced at Bonhams in London.

The image, consigned by an American owner, will feature in the ‘Fine Portrait Miniatures’ auction taking place at Bonhams, Knightsbridge on May 30th. Oval in format and measuring 70mm (2 3/4in) in height, this spellbinding image is estimated to attract £10,000-15,000 when it is auctioned.

The majority of contemporary portraits of Keats derive from Joseph Severn's miniature of the poet, which was exhibited at the RA in 1819 (no.940) (The Fitzwilliam Museum, Accession no.713). The present lot does not derive from this work or any of the other known portraits taken during Keats' short life, which strongly suggests it was painted from life.

Catalogued by Bonhams as ‘Circle of Charles Hayter (British, 1761-1835)’ this rare miniature of the poet, John Keats (1795-1821), shows him wearing a black double-breasted coat and waistcoat, white frilled chemise, stock and tie. The miniature is housed within a gold frame, the reverse glazed to reveal sprays of dark blonde hair decorated with split seed pearls and gilt-wire, set on opalescent glass. The lower rim is also engraved, ‘John Keats 1795-1821’. The miniature will be auctioned within its red leather travelling case, together with ‘Autobiography of John Keats: Compiled from His Letters and Essays’ by Earle Vonard Weller (Stanford University Press, 1933), in which an image of the very same miniature is colour illustrated on the frontispiece.

Jennifer Tonkin, Head of Miniature Portraits, comments: “We believe this miniature to be a unique image of Keats, one of our greatest poets. The majority of contemporary portraits of Keats derive from the miniature painted by his friend, Joseph Severn, in which he is seated with his left hand to his face but this image differs from this and all other extant portraits of the poet in that it portrays him standing against a sky background. Given his untimely death at the age of twenty-five, this image has the power to move anyone who has ever admired Keats’ work.”

In death, John Keats came to be regarded as one of the key figures of the second generation of romantic poets alongside Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His humble origins as the eldest of five children born to Thomas Keats (c.1773–1804) and Frances Jennings (1775–1810) at 'The Swan and Hoop' coaching inn fueled Keats' romantic image during the second half of the 19th century and left him open to attacks by Tory critics during the final four years of his life in which his work entered the public domain.

His early desires to become a poet eclipsed his ambition of becoming a medical practitioner despite having passed his exams at Guy's Hospital in 1816. By February 1819 Keats had completed and published, 'The Eve of St Agnes', now considered one of his greatest poems. During the spring of that same year, Keats produced 'Ode to Psyche', 'Ode to a Nightingale', and 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' in quick succession. It is likely that these poems were written during Keats' stay at Wentworth Place in Hampstead, where he lived next to his nineteen year old fiancé, Fanny Brawne - a match which her mother and Keats' inner circle disapproved of. Keats wrote many of the poems for which he is best known soon after meeting Fanny and it is undoubtedly the case that his relationship with her significantly influenced his 1819 sonnet, 'Bright Star'.

Keats' declining health had reached a critical point by early 1820. During the summer of that year, painfully aware that he would likely die from tuberculosis, as his mother and brother had before him, Keats asked Fanny to release him from their engagement. His jealous passion for Fanny Brawne subsequently became a torture of frustrated desire and thwarted hopes. He saw her for the last time on 13 September 1820 and refused to write to her or read her letters henceforth.

With the approval of his doctor, Keats travelled to Italy with Joseph Severn (1793-1879), with whom he had become acquainted during his years in medical school. The two men reached Naples at the end of October and by mid-November took lodgings in Rome near the Piazza di Spagna. Keats' health continued to deteriorate and on the evening of 23 February 1821 he passed away. Severn, a faithful friend until the end, had Keats buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, inscribing his gravestone, 'Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water' at Keats' request, with no other words.

A retrospective collection of his writings ('Richard Monckton Milnes's Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats') published in 1848, cemented Keats' legacy and greatly influenced the Pre-Raphaelites amongst others. His early death, and the obscurity in which he died has nourished a tendency to idealize Keats, who for many epitomizes a popular conception of the Romantic poet, yearning for escape from the pain and banality of everyday life into a world absorbed by the imagination.

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