Joseph Severn (7 December 1793 – 3 August 1879) was an English portrait and subject painter and a personal friend of the famous English poet John Keats. He exhibited portraits, Italian genre, literary and biblical subjects, and a selection of his paintings can today be found in some of the most important museums in London, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Britain.
The eldest son of a music teacher, Severn was born at Hoxton, near London, and apprenticed at the age of 14 to William Bond, an engraver. Severn was one of seven children; two of his brothers, Thomas (1801-1881) and Charles (1806-1894), became professional musicians, and Severn himself was an adroit pianist. During his early years he practised portraiture as a miniaturist.
Early years in London 1815-1820
In 1815 he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited his first work in oil, Hermia and Helena, a subject from A Midsummer Night's Dream, along with a portrait miniature, "J. Keats, Esq", in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1819. He probably first met the poet John Keats in the spring of 1816.
In 1819, Severn was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Academy for his painting Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cave of Despair which was inspired by the epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. It was the first time the prize had been awarded in eight years and the painting was exhibited at the Academy in 1820. This award also allowed Severn to apply for a three years' traveling studentship, paid for by the Royal Academy.
According to a new edition of Severn's letters and memoirs, Severn fathered an illegitimate child named Henry (b. 31 Aug. 1819) about a year before leaving England for Italy. In 1826 there were plans for father and son to reunite, but Henry died, aged 11, before he could make the journey to Rome.
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