Jack Solloway

Artist Nancy Cadogan on Keats, Gusto and The Keats-Shelley House in Rome

Nancy Cadogan is a British figurative painter. She was named as one of the ‘Top 20 New British Art Talents’ by Tatler magazine, describing her as ‘the new Paula Rego’ in 2008. Since then, she has been featured as one of 93 women artists to exhibit at The Ned in London, for its permanent Vault 100 exhibition, amongst others. Her solo shows, Mind Zero and Footnotes (for the British Art Fair), were presented at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Cadogan’s latest exhibition, Gusto at The Keats-Shelley House in Rome, chronicles Keats’s time in the capital, reflecting on his life in quarantine under the care of his companion, the artist Joseph Severn. Keats travelled to Rome in November 1820 for warmer climes to aid his increasingly serious illness. Forced into quarantine, the poet died from tuberculosis on 23 February 1821.

Speaking with Cadogan over the phone, I find out more about Gusto, the artist’s enduring reference to books and literature in her work, and the resonance of Keats’s life and death in Rome during today’s pandemic crisis.

Tell us about the influence of literature on your visual art.

My paintings often reference books and literature. I did a show called Still Reading: little paintings, compressed jewels, all about different books I’ve read. Then I had a show at Saatchi last year (Mind Zero) which was much looser: they were works from the imagination. I was interested in painting the idea of the book – and the ideas within certain books – rather than observations of them.

That’s how Gusto came about. I painted Keats in Still Reading and somebody approached me to ask if I would be interested in making some work for the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. He’s amazing and it’s a really interesting subject. Have you been to the Keats-Shelley House?

I have, it’s a beautiful building by the Spanish Steps. Am I correct in saying you’re the first artist-in-residence there?

No, I don’t think I am. There’s a most wonderful director there, a chap called Giuseppe Albano, who’s been having a few contemporary shows: maybe two or three. It is such a poignant and moving place, so small, and I felt very choked up – it’s extraordinary to think of this young, brilliant talent there, going out with his friend Joseph Severn. Severn wanted to get to Rome and become a travel painter and academician. There was huge ambition within them both, but obviously Keats’s is entirely cut short because of his profound illness.

‘Dreaming of Rome’ by Nancy Cadogan from her upcoming show Gusto in Rome

I hadn’t thought of it like that— of the painter trying to kick-start his career, and the poet coming to the end of his life.

Extraordinary, isn’t it? Joseph Severn was spellbound by young Keats, who he’d met in London. Keats is hanging out with all these brilliant, clever, incredible people. Joseph said he wanted to be alongside him, and of course he wanted to get to Rome. So when the doctor said ‘I think he needs to go to Italy for his health’, Joseph Severn thought ‘Count me in. I’m off for the Grand Tour.’ In actuality, he spent those first four months when he got to Rome being Keats’s nursemaid, trying to feed him.

Keats was on this diet of an anchovy a day — they had this idea that they would starve the consumption out — and he was taking crazy medication. So there they were, these two boys in their early twenties, locked in this house. It’s a heavy subject to be making work about, and the show was already signed up before coronavirus kicked in. The weight of it has been quite difficult to navigate, trying to put that into painting.

How have you approached it, then? What has helped you navigate the topics of Keats and illness?

Well, I had a complete about-turn last week!

The series is still in progress?

Still very much in progress. I think that is part of the process. I said ‘Actually, scrap that, I’m starting again.’ In the show at Saatchi, there was almost a protagonist in the paintings, who is this dark-haired, female, often blue-skinned figure. She was painted from my imagination — I am blonde; so she could in no way be seen as a self-portrait. But certainly, she is this avatar. She invites the viewer into a meditative world, which is to think about literature and paintings, and cultural history.

I started by having some of these paintings with this figure in them, surrounded by Café Greco, which Keats and Severn were so excited to be going to. It had this history as a place where writers and artists and intellectuals hung out. And I think those paintings will still come back into it, but I suddenly realised that maybe it’s not her story, it’s actually Keats’s story. Currently I’m working on a quad that will lead me back in, with the absence of a figure. I’ve called it ‘The Light is Outside’, because it describes the moment of quarantine.

The title reminds me of the famous painting by Joseph Severn, of Keats sitting down beside the window and a prospect looking out onto Hampstead Heath.

Yes, exactly — always looking out. He’s compared to Shakespeare a lot because they both have this linguistic dexterity. He didn’t experience these things — they’re often from his imagination. His love affair with Fanny Brawne was never consummated or anything.

John Keats, portrait by Joseph Severn, painted between 1821 and 1823 after the poet’s death

Gusto is the title of the exhibition itself at the Keats -Shelley House. Where did the title come from?

It came from Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Gusto’, on paintings (1816). I love Hazlitt and always have. That essay is seen as a moment, almost an entering, of the Romantic view in criticism. He talks about the power, the ‘something else’; how emotion can come through things, and things can be full of passion, that even the inanimate could be animate. It was really influential on Keats, and at the same time, gusto is ‘flavour’ in Italian. I wanted to have an Anglo-Italian word, because of the Anglo-Italian link between the two — the Keats-Shelley House, Keats’s grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Keats uses the word ‘gusto’ himself: he writes that true poetic character ‘lives in gusto’, through passion. The first line of Hazlitt’s essay says that ‘Gusto in art is power or passion in defining any object.’ It’s such an extraordinary artistic statement for a writer then, that your inner feelings could shape an object in your image.

Absolutely. To come from inside out, and therefore for emotion to be given validity.

That’s almost the Romantic manifesto: the transformation of the outer world by innermost feeling. Would you say your artworks align with the Romantic tradition?

Well not really, which is interesting. They have a mood, they’re often contemplative and still. They are not impassioned paintings. I live in a chaotic, busy world, and somehow out of that comes these rather still images, that are honed down, full of symbols and references. But they’re more Hazlitt and Keats than Byron, if you know what I mean. That sense of semi-understanding something — a fleeting moment passing over you, that you try to handle or recognise.

Negative capability, as Keats put it?

Exactly. So in that sense, yes. But not in the later – and in my opinion slightly less interesting time – when Byron was stomping around. I shouldn’t say that, maybe you’re a massive Byron fan.

Byron gave Keats possibly the worst posthumous review in history. I have it here:

_John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
_Just as he really promised something great […]
_‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
_Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
__________________[_[Don Juan, Canto XI]

It’s such a quip. You can imagine it being dismissively written, if rather funny and rather clever.

We have this image of Keats as a sickly poet. Yes, he died of illness, but when he was younger he was a boxer. It’s a shame Byron’s characterisation has stuck, because you see the opposite in his poetry — it’s very sensuous, corporeal, full of life.

Absolutely, I completely agree. When he and Joseph Severn became friends, Keats was very physical and vivacious. You couldn’t be that person and write the poetry he did, so alive and full of gusto. You also sense this huge anger in his illness, his frustration. It’s not wan and idle — there’s something much more vital, and pissed-off, about it. When he wrote ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’, that’s not a message of defeat. It’s him saying, ‘I have so much to do in my life.’

What is it about Keats that first inspired you as a subject?

I painted Keats in Still Reading – a lovely volume, the Faber Selected Poems by Andrew Motion, that I keep with me. I was reading him, thinking about it, painting. He’s always been there – I read Hazlitt’s essays when I was 14, and there is that lovely early 1800s moment of clarity, when things haven’t become too Byronic, too overt, which then quickly moved into the Victorians. That period was a window of clarity, which Keats is a huge part of. I read a lot of Wordsworth, painted a lot of Wordsworth, painted Coleridge in my last show.

On Receipt of a Particular Shell, Selected Poems, John Keats’ by Nancy Cadogan from her Still Reading series

What’s extraordinary about the Still Reading series is that you’re working with still lives yet you’re trying to bring out a story from an object that is literally a closed book (a useful metaphor for describing still life in painting perhaps).

I love bookshops, I read, I collect books. I think in words sometimes more than images, but what comes out of me is images. When you go to the bookshop or library, it’s a really exciting moment — you’ve got a beautiful volume, it’s in your hand, it’s shut and it’s full of promise. So I had this idea that I could paint a show about these shut books, compressing everything inside them, and make the viewer feel excited for everything they hold.

I don’t know whether they simply became still lives of books — a collector, who bought three paintings for his library, came up to me afterwards, and said ‘I love your still lives of books’. Which, as a statement, was absolutely fine, and true. But to me it was a pivotal moment, when I thought ‘Maybe they haven’t gone far enough. Maybe I’m still too tight into the observed world rather than the felt world, and maybe I need to be a bit braver.’

Perhaps that was an unfair statement. Some of the paintings do work better than others, but in every instance, you’re given a denied opportunity — again, it’s negative capability. The promise of having a story, or wanting to open a book, but also being unable to do so. It fosters a desire in the viewer which is denied by the image. It’s a fascinating experience.

I love that you see that, because that’s what it’s all about — that golden feeling, when it’s all there, and you haven’t yet put your feet up or picked it up – surrounding it in something which is beautiful.

What led you to paint Andrew Motion’s edition of Keats?

He’s rather clear. I enjoyed his foreword.

Given that Gusto also refers to ‘flavour’, I wonder what your thoughts are on ‘taste’ in art. It was a prevailing term in art criticism in the eighteenth century, for example.

There’s a very funny account of Joseph Severn, on being fed. They had an Italian landlady, who was giving them food, and the food was absolutely disgusting. They were so cross, and they had no idea what to do (this was before Keats was down to one anchovy and half a bread roll). So when the woman came up, he took the food — this shows a man who’s got character and strength — and chucked it out the window onto the Spanish Steps. It’s amazing, and so bold! The lady was impressed. And from then on, she fed them really good food. Maybe the story’s a myth, but it’s a nice story nonetheless.

We mentioned briefly Keats’s travelling to Rome because of illness. How do you see your exhibition alongside the current crisis?

I think that’s why it’s been quite difficult to make the show. Where it was headed has had to change. It feels unfitting to make a show entirely about literary history as you and I are discussing it, when actually Keats was in quarantine, very unwell and died. There he was, on the Maria Crowther, he arrives in Rome, the light air — and it doesn’t work out so well. That sense of confinement is now something that I’m trying to work on in the pictures. Today Italy has been struck so terribly.

When you say you’ve changed direction, is that because you’re feeling the pressure of the current crisis as an artist, or is this also a way of trying to paint for an audience?

I certainly do not paint to try and please the audience. That gets you nowhere, and I don’t think you make interesting work. But what I’ve been trying to do is consider the viewer’s position, as in, where the viewer is taken in a painting. I wasn’t necessarily sure that my message translated enough, and ultimately if my message doesn’t translate the painting has not been successful.

In my last show I moved away from observational painting to imagined. I changed scale for Mind Zero — they became absolutely enormous. From these tiny 10-inch squares you see in Still Reading, I went to a metre and a half by 180. Now I’m trying to bring these two points together, a combination of observational and imagined work – and then I think about Keats and the fact that everything was imagined for Keats. Coleridge talks about suspension of disbelief: it’s equally important to painting as it is to poetry.

Photograph of the artist at work in her studio

I read that you’re interested in stillness, not only in the tradition of still life and how that explores the passage of time, but actual physical stillness. I wonder how you see the relationship between stillness, solitude and imagination in your work.

It’s the idea of the body being still and the mind being completely free. Keats clearly had this in abundance. If you think about Van Gogh’s confinement — in a year, he did 103 canvases. Physically, he couldn’t really do things, but that was where his mind was limitless. For Mind Zero I wanted you to come and see the paintings and be transported in a still and not still way. I wanted people to be able to sit and be; for the work on one the hand to be extremely peaceful, well-designed and well-coloured – all the things that create a sense of harmony – but within that, to allow you to go off on a journey that wouldn’t be prescribed by me.

I worried that some of my Still Reading books were more prescriptive, because they were observed paintings of particular editions of particular books. When painting the Wordsworth, I was very clear that it was the 1805 edition of The Prelude. Later on, I was trying to make something much less prescriptive and object-based. Now I’m trying to take the figure out of some of those paintings and create semi-dynamic still lives.

Reading is a good example of that, of sitting down and being physically still while your mind is transported elsewhere through the book.

Absolutely. I’ve read obsessively since I was very small, and I’m sure that’s part of it — that whatever part of the world you’re in, there’s this other world that you can inhabit while cohabiting the real world.

Keats writes about this too — I’m thinking about ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. That’s exactly the experience he describes, of being transported to these other worlds through reading.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…

‘Yet did I never breathe its pure serene / Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.’ This isn’t simply a book — it’s as if Chapman’s talking to him directly. This is a physical experience, one we might usually associate with conversing face-to-face…

Or having been there, experiencing something personally. But for him the words are experience enough. How you then put that into picture the delicacy of the words and Italy – especially now everyone’s been locked up. Thank goodness Italian museums opened this week.

We spent quite a lot of time in Italy, on Lake Como, which I’m also trying to get into painting. They made the news yesterday — the mayor saying, ‘Please come and visit, our economy’s based on tourism.’ It’s very beautiful: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, they all went up there and had moments, transported by the weather and the view.

The plan is to have a London presentation of the paintings for about 48 hours before they travel to Rome, in a hotel probably. I think we’re aiming for October – a chance for people to see them.

For further information please visit www.nancycadogan.com and @nancy_cadogan_art.


Interview by Jack Solloway.

Gusto is showing at the Keats-Shelley House later this year. 

The Keats-Shelley House opened in 1909 and is today one of the most important institutional museums celebrating the timeless work of writers Keats, Shelley and Byron and more.

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