The Artist as Tavern-keeper

Cover page of manuscript catalogue of the exhibition of works by Thomas Keyse

It's an interesting moment when a book dealer brings in something that neither the dealer nor you yourself quite know what it could possibly be. The item in question was an eight-page manuscript in ink, entitled Catalogue of an exhibition of paintings now exhibiting at the Lyceum Strand the whole painted by Mr Keyse. It looks like a maquette for a printed catalog, as the manuscript hand imitates typography. And it has “Kemish printer Borough” on its cover. Intriguingly, there is a date of 1827, crossed out in pencil and Nov 1797 inserted. There are 72 paintings of which seven are starred as for sale, mainly works not by Keyse. Painting No. 51 is described as “lately painted by Mr Keyse at the age of 78 years.” Keyse may have been born in 1721, which would give an approximate date of 1799 and probably before Keyse died on 8 February 1800; otherwise it would have said “painted by the late Mr Keyse.” Many of the paintings were auctioned by Peter Coxe, Burrell & Foster on Thursday, 4 August 1803, which would make a date of 1827 unlikely.

Page 4 of an incomplete printed catalog of the paintings of Thomas Keyse

This manuscript is accompanied by an equally intriguing fragment of a printed catalog, which lacks a title page and the first four pages, so we do not know its title. There seem to be no other library holdings. My contention would be that this printed catalog is the Bermondsey Spa version, perhaps entitled Catalogue of an exhibition of paintings now exhibiting at Bermondsey Spa the whole painted by Mr KeyseJohn Thomas Smith (1766-1833) in A Book for a Rainy Day (first and posthumous edition published in 1845) recorded under the year 1795 that the Spa was “most rapidly on the decline," and it is likely that from 1797 the collection was shown at the Lyceum, which had been built by the Society of Artists (of which Keyes was a member) in 1772 for exhibitions by their member artists. Whether this move was a seasonal one — perhaps just for the winter season  is not known. The entries for the paintings in the print catalogue are accompanied by poetry describing the works almost giving it the feel of a performance/gallery tour, accompanying the visitors as they move through the gallery painting by painting.

Color stipple engraving of a portrait of Thomas Keyse by John Chapman after Samuel Drummond c.1797

Thomas Keyse was a self-taught artist. He was a founder member of the Free Society of Artists and with them exhibited three fruit and flower still lifes in 1761, and other works in 1762-64 and 1773. He exhibited at the Society of Arts 1765-68 and had two works — No. 94, Fruit Piece, and No. 545, Flower Piece —  shown at the Royal Academy in 1799. In 1764 (1768 in some accounts), the Society of Arts awarded him thirty guineas for devising a method of fixing crayon drawings.

Around 1765, Keyse became the tavern-keeper of the Waterman’s Arms, Bermondsey, south of the River Thames.He was apparently a congenial host and his homemade cherry-brandy was highly praised. On some adjoining waste ground he opened a tea-room. Around 1770, a chalybeate spring was discovered, and Keyse decided to re-open the tavern as a pleasure ground called the Bermondsey Spa. In 1784, he obtained a music license from the Surrey magistrates and “burlettas,” musical interludes, solos, and duets were performed: some of the music was composed by the organist Jonas Blewitt. Poems were supplied by a Mr. J. Oakman and a Mr. Harriss.

The usual entry fee was one shilling, and a copper or lead token, worth sixpence, given in return, could be used in exchange for refreshments. Copies of the words of the “burlettas” and the gallery catalog could be purchased for sixpence.

The Spa also hosted the annual commemorative dinner of the Free Society of Artists.

Additional entertainment consisted of an outdoor recreation of the Siege of Gibraltar (1779-83), first introduced in 1786, including bombshells and returning fire, using fireworks and transparencies. This was designed by Keyse himself.

A permanent attraction was the Gallery of Paintings, which included Keyse’s representations of a greengrocers, fishmongers, poulterers, and a famous butcher’s shop. Sir Joshua Reynolds reputedly visited the gallery twice and admired Keyse’s use of white.

Few of Keyse’s paintings seem to have survived, and the Public Catalogue Foundation/Your Paintings website records no public holdings (at least in the UK). There are several auction results ranging from GBP 200 for Basket of fruits scattered on ground in wood (London, 1 May 1964) to USD 15,000 for A Still live with bread, cheese, a pie, radishes in a dish, and a decanter of ale on a table (New York, 4 October 2007) —  this may be No. 71, A Luncheon, of the manuscript catalog.

John Chapman (after Samuel Drummond), Thomas Keyse (1721-1800), ca. 1797. Stipple engraving.

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