Joseph Severn was the eldest son of a music teacher from Hoxton. At the age of 14 he became apprenticed to the engraved William Bond before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1815. Here, in 1820, he was awarded the gold medal for historical painting for his Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cave of Despair, which granted him a travelling scholarship. This coincided with the illness of his friend, the poet John Keats, and together they travelled to Rome in search of a better climate for the ailing poet. During the winter of 1820-21 Severn nursed Keats in their apartment near the Spanish Steps but on 23 February 1821 Keats died. Severn then remained in Rome, launching his own artistic career, becoming a painter of landscapes, portraits and subject paintings. A companionable and likable character his large apartment in the Via de San Isidoro became an artistic centre for English visitors to Rome. In the winter of 1837 he met Sir Thomas and Lady Acland who were to become important patrons to Severn and helped to promote his work at home in England. In 1838 it was the turn of their son, Henry Wentworth Acland, to visit Severn in Rome. Henry Acland, later Sir Henry Wentworth Dyke Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, became a life long friend of Severn and his family. Acland gave his Oxford friend Ruskin a letter of introduction to Severn for his visit to Rome in 1840 resulting in another crucial relationship and patronage for the Severn family.
The present work can be identified as a view from the top of the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (see later view of the same scene by George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, Government Art Collection). The inscription on the reverse suggests it is a join painting by Severn and Acland. It seems it may have been given to Acland when Severn visited England in 1838/39. It remained in Acland’s collection in Oxford, passing along with the other contents of the house to his daughter, the pioneering photographer Sarah Angelina Acland. On the death of Sarah Acland in 1930 it was acquired by Sir Roger Mynors, then a fellow and classics tutor at Balliol.
Severn remained in Rome for most of his life. After a period of hardship he managed to obtain the position of British Consul, 1860-72. He died in Rome in 1879 and was buried next to Keats. His children, Walter Severn, Arthur Joseph Severn and Ann Mary Newton were also artists. Arthur Joseph was to marry Ruskin’s niece and looked after the great man during his last years at Brantwood.