The house, originally called Wentworth Place, was built in 1814-6 for Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Armitage Brown, a pair of semi-detached houses sharing a common garden, on land enclosed from Hampstead Heath. John Keats (1795-1821) lived here with Brown from 1818-1820, having come to know the area in 1816. In 1819 Fanny Brawne and her family lived next door and she and Keats met and fell in love. Keats died of TB in Italy, where he had travelled for the sake of his health. The house was later owned by actress Eliza Chester, who made it a single dwelling. Threatened with demolition in the 1920s it was purchased and opened to the public as a memorial to John Keats on 9 May 1925. In 2009 Keats House re-opened following refurbishment of both house and garden, the latter redesigned in keeping with the Regency period of Keats' day.
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Photo: Diana Jarvis
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The house, originally called Wentworth Place, was built between 1814-6 by William Woods for Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Armitage Brown, as a pair of semi-detached houses sharing a common garden. The land was enclosed from Hampstead Heath (q.v.), and Dilke and Brown were among the first to build here. Dilke and his family lived in the larger, western side and Brown occupied the smaller eastern portion. There were stables to the south-west and a kitchen garden to the north-west of house; the stables were later converted to house a collection relating to Keats and branch library, and what was the kitchen garden became the approach path to the library. John Keats (1795- 1821) lived here with Charles Brown for 17 months from 1818-1820 at which time the house was known as Lawn Bank, and from April 1819 his next door neighbour was Mrs Brawne and her three children, who had taken Wentworth Place when the Dilkes went to Westminster. Keats and the eldest daughter Fanny met and fell in love, forming an engagement despite Keats' impecuniousness. Keats had come to know the area from 1816 when he visited his friend the critic and journalist Leigh Hunt who lived in the Vale of Health, Hampstead Heath and who Keats had met in 1816. He also met other poets such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Percy Bysshe Shelley and painters Benjamin Robert Haydon and Joseph Severn. In 1817 he was living at Well Walk Hampstead and around this time met and became friends with Dilke and Brown. In late 1818 Keats moved in to share Brown's house after the death of his brother Tom from consumption. Keats himself died of tuberculosis on 23 February 1821 in Italy, where he had travelled for the sake of his health. In 1838-39 Wentworth Place was purchased by Eliza Jane Chester, a retired actress, who converted the house into one dwelling, removing the staircase on Brown's original side and added what is now called the Chester Room at the eastern end, as well as a conservatory.
The garden in Keats' day was a woodland garden and a second entrance used to exist to the north; Keats referred to a 'grass plot' in front of the windows. An ancient plum tree that stood near the front of the house has been replaced and a plaque beneath it relates how the 'Ode to a Nightingale' was written there. There was no conservatory in Keats' time, the current building dates from 1974-5 replacing the Victorian predecessor.
In 1920-21 the house was threatened with destruction, but was saved by money raised by public subscription, much of it from American donors and it was vested in Hampstead Borough Council to be maintained in perpetuity in Keats' memory. It was opened to the public on 25 May 1925. Sir Charles Dilke, grandson of Charles Wentworth Dilke, had donated his collection relating to Keats to Hampstead Borough Council, and this was originally displayed in Hampstead Central Library. It was later moved to a new building especially erected for the purpose next to Keats House, on the site of the stables and kitchen garden. Also used as a branch library, this was opened on 17 July 1931 by the Marquess of Crewe who was the son of Keats' first biographer Lord Houghton. Keats House was damaged by bombing in World War II, but was partially restored in 1951.
In 1974-5 LB Camden, who succeeded Hampstead Borough Council, restored the house with funding from the Historic Buildings Council. The garden was replanted in the late 1970s with advice from Peter Goodchild and included flowering shrubs within a north fenced boundary, with mature trees including plane and lime. The approach path to the house was flanked by lavender hedges and had a mixed border along the east boundary. Ash, beech, sycamore were planted along the south boundary. In 1998 City of London took over responsibility for the house, which was managed by London Metropolitan Archives and some restoration was undertaken. Although formerly on the EH Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest, Keats House was removed in 2003.
In 2007, Keats House was awarded a HLF grant of £424,000 to undertake substantial restoration and it re-opened in 2009. The refurbishment sought to reflect the original decoration of the property, creating a living space that Keats would have recognised and providing an authentic example of Regency style. In tandem with the refurbishment of the house, the garden has also been redesigned. A new hedge was planted around the border of the garden in October 2008 and new fruit trees, plants and shrubs, all in keeping with the Regency period, have been put in place. Each border of the garden reflects an aspect of Keats’s poetry: Melancholy, Autumn and Nightingale.
EH Register: Garden History II, 4, Autumn 1975 pp35-39; Pevsner 'London except . . . Westminster', 1952, p197. Christina M Gee 'Keats House, Hampstead', LB Camden (1990); Andrew Saint (introduction), 'London Suburbs', Merrell Holberton Publishers 1999.