The recently completed Joseph Severn Watercolors digital collection is a beautiful addition to ZSR’s online content as well as another chapter in the story of these materials. Prompted by a researcher and Severn scholar, we have been researching the provenance of the three pencil and watercolor images and have come up with some surprising and entertaining results.
Joseph Severn (1793-1879) was an English portrait and subject artist, working primarily in Rome, Italy. A selection of his paintings can be found today in the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. More notably for our story, Joseph Severn was a personal friend of famous English Poet John Keats. As Keats’ doctors suggested he leave England for a warmer climate, Severn was the only of his group of acquaintances that could, or would, accompany him. Keats and Severn set sail for Rome on the Maria Crowther September 17, 1820, finally arriving in Rome mid-November, 1820. Severn lived with and nursed Keats until his death February 23, 1821. Presumably, it was aboard the Maria Crowther that Joseph Severn produced the watercolors in Special Collections and Archives holdings. Two of the three images have handwritten notations in pencil, including that these were “done on the way to Italy with Keats.” It was this clue that pushed them to the top of our digitization queue, as these materials are both unique and high in research value.
The only hint of provenance is a barely legible pencil notation on the back of the mounting paper that reads “Given to Maureen Watson by Arthur Severn[RJ?] son of Joseph Severn (Keats [?]) 19[2?]3″. As our researcher prompted more questions on how this came into our holdings, and who Maureen Watson was, we turned to the Lady Watson Materials series in the Charles Lee Smith finding aid. It was by looking through the Lady Watson materials that we worked backwards to see how Wake Forest acquired the Joseph Severn watercolors.
Lady Maureen Watson, wife of noted British poet Sir William Watson (1892-1935) befriended Charles Lee Smith, Wake Forest College alumnus and rare book benefactor, after she and her daughters fled Ireland to South Africa and then to Asheville, NC in fear of Hitler’s invasion. Charles Lee Smith, a successful businessman and collector of rare books and manuscripts, read of her arrival in Asheville in the Raleigh News and Observer. It was this article that prompted Charles Lee Smith to write Lady Watson a June 10, 1940 letter describing their “accidental meeting about the first of July, 1927.” He continues:
Together with my son and one of his university classmates, I was spending some days at the resorts of the English Lakes. On the day in question, we were on a tramcar en route to take a lake boat when two ladies entered the car and the boys gave them their seats. A lady in the seat behind mine said, “That was beautiful”, and I turned and thanked her for the compliment paid my boys – that lady happened to be you. You remarked that it was not customary in England for men to give women their seats. Then you added, “But in Ireland they do, and I am an Irish girl”.
The letter goes on and so does the correspondence between Lady Watson and Charles Lee Smith. It seemed that they formed a close relationship. Lady Watson eventually visited Charles Lee Smith and his wife in Raleigh. Impressed by his collection of rare and unique books and manuscripts, Lady Watson wrote a November 4th, 1940 letter to Charles Lee Smith offering him some of her prized materials.
For the last few hours – I have gathered together the enclos [sic] oddments – some of them interesting – a very few precious (to me) and am greatly daring – considering my intimacy with your English collection of literary treasures is so small – in asking that you accept them to place in such good company, posterity, will perhaps make a call for all that pertains to my much loved Poet so that even oddments may have a special value. – I am also enclosing letters which bear upon his M.S.S. and where – in these days of TERROR they are in safe keeping – for all Englands [sic] future may (and probably will) lie in this Western Hemisphere
Enclosed with this letter is a list of materials Lady Watson intended to give to Smith, including “sketches by Joseph Severn while taking Keats to Rome.” It seems as if Lady Watson was somehow acquainted with Arthur Severn, son of Joseph Severn. Included in the Charles Lee Smith papers “Lady Watson Materials” is an essay titled “The Arthur Severns'” that is referenced in the same November 4th, 1940 letter.
The short memo by myself on the Severns I thought I would publish one day in the far off future if interest in these things revives – it cast light on a few obscure things – and as we so often stay in the same house as the Severns who inherited the the Ruskin traditions and wealth – it is first hand knowledge…
It is with this letter and supporting “memo” that we find the connection between both the Severn watercolors and Charles Lee Smith, but more importantly the vague mention of a relationship between Lady Watson and Arthur Severn. The implication that they were acquainted is supported by another document in the Charles Lee Smith papers. In a single undated manuscript letter to the Editor of the Times, Joseph Severn’s son Arthur writes a story he conveyed at the opening of the Keats House at Hampstead. It is this same manuscript that includes a quick note written in pencil that reads “Written by Arthur Severn RJ. Given to MW 1925.” This and a photograph of “Mrs. Severn in Brantwood Garden, Coniston” further supports a relationship between Arthur Severn and Lady Watson and another exchange of material from Severn to Watson.
Unfortunately, documentation of how and when Lady Watson received the watercolors does not exist in our holdings. As Lady Watson left Ireland in fear of Hitler’s eventual occupation of Europe, first traveling to South Africa and later on to Asheville, North Carolina, one might assume that she did not have time, money, or resources to bring all of her papers with her on relocation. Lady Watson’s husband died with very little money, leaving Lady Watson with little means probably limiting her ability to keep all of her belongings. A Raleigh News and Observer clipping from June 9, 1940 sheds a bit more light on Lady Watson and her daughters’ departure from Ireland and eventual settling in Asheville, North Carolina.
Geraldine disappeared to make coffee while Rhona reiterated her mother’s belief that Hitler will conquer not only Britain but the whole of Europe, that the continent will henceforth be known as Germania and that the United States will be the only safe place in the world. Lady Watson further believes that Hitler will be satisfied with South Africa, and will not invade our shores. For three years in Capetown, South Africa, Lady Watson gave English lessons to German refugees, where her brother is aide to General Jan Christiaan Smuts, vice-premier of South Africa.
It is the same article that describes Sir William Watson’s hardships and eventual death in August 1935 in “near-poverty in a Sussex nursing home.” Sir William and Lady Watson’s daughters explain to the journalist their desire to make good coffee as “We must have money. We’re going to open a pie and coffee shop.” It is with this in mind that we consider the later November 4th letter offering Charles Lee Smith some of her materials for safe keeping.
Had Lady Watson held onto the Severn watercolors, it is probable that they would not have survived. A very rushed and brief postcard dated March 15, 1943 reports bad news for Lady Watson.
All our possessions burned out in 7 minutes we are pulverized in mind but it’s only onward. ____ We can go! Our love to both- Maureen Watson and Geraldine.
Luckily, the Joseph Severn Watercolors were not among Lady Watson’s possessions destroyed in the fire. Charles Lee Smith had already taken possession of these materials and was in the process of donating all of his materials to a “reputable institution.” Although Lady Watson did not know what the institution was, we now know he was speaking of Wake Forest College. In a February 3, 1942 letter to Lady Watson, Charles Lee Smith writes:
Cora and I were glad to receive your January letter concerning the Sir William Watson items, etc. which you gave me for my collection. I assure you that members of your family and all others who have proper credentials shall have access to them for all time.
Now I have a secret to confide you. I have legally donated my library and collection of letters, documents, and manuscripts to an important educational institution, which will place them in a room (suitably and finely furnished) of its fire-proof library building, to be kept perpetually as the Charles Lee Smith Unit, no item to be sold, exchanged, or given away…
I am not at liberty to say any more about this matter now, and I am confident you will personally hold in strictest confidence what I am making known to you.
Although C.L. Smith began negotiations to donate his library to Wake Forest in 1941, the presentation of the Charles Lee Smith Library did not take place until March 13, 1958. Unfortunately, Charles Lee Smith died in 1951, but did work with E.E. Folk on A Catalogue of the Library of Charles Lee Smith, published by the Wake Forest College Press in 1950.
The Joseph Severn Watercolors are a wonderful example of the exciting and unique materials in our manuscript collections. We are especially pleased that they have been digitized and available online for patrons to view and study. Enjoy!