Why is an original marble bust of John Kenyon, Esq., displayed in Armstrong Browning’s Entrance Foyer with busts of Robert, Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning (“Pen”)?
John Kenyon (1784-1856), a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s and friend of both Elizabeth and Robert, was destined to play an important role in their lives both individually and as a couple. John Kenyon was born in Jamaica, son of a wealthy landowner, but came to England as a boy. His wealth and his noted generosity and kindliness made him an eminent patron of the literary establishment during the second quarter of the 19th century. Kenyon was, in fact, best known for his friendships with many eminent literary men and women. He was, as well, a poet who published some volumes of minor verses.
John Kenyon introduced Eilzabeth to the important literary figures of the time, among them William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, and Mary Russell Mitford, who was to become a good friend.
In 1841, the Barrett family moved to 50 Wimpole Street in London. By this time, Elizabeth’s health had become fragile and she spent most of her time in her rooms upstairs, seeing only family, her dog, Flush–and John Kenyon. Although frail, she continued to write and publish her poetry. She became so popular that Robert Browning, six years her junior and much less well-known at the time, became enamored of her poetry. On her part,she was already well-acquainted with Browning’s few published works.
In 1844 Barrett’s collection “Poems” was published and became a tremendous popular success. Robert raved about the poems in the presence of John Kenyon and Kenyon urged him to write to her and tell her how he felt. Robert did, indeed, write and his praise was fulsome. In fact, his enthusiasm led him to startle Elizabeth somewhat–at that point they had never met: “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart–and I love you, too.” When Robert expressed a desire to meet her, through the agency of John Kenyon, she refused–several times. She could not believe the robust Browning really wanted to meet her. Finally, though, she relented and Kenyon arranged for Browning to meet Elizabeth on May 20, 1845.
Robert met Elizabeth in her rooms at Wimpole Street and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. During the twenty months of the courtship, the two met regularly and exchanged 574 letters as well. During this period, too, Elizabeth secretly wrote the works that became her most famous: A cycle of 44 sonnets celebrating her growing love for Robert; later to be given the title “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” The courtship and their marriage at St. Marylebone parish church on September 12, 1846 were kept secret from her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett, who had forbidden his 11 children to marry. When he did learn of their elopement he disinherited Elizabeth.
John Kenyon remained quite close to Robert and Elizabeth’s for the remainder of his life. At the birth of their only child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (nicknamed, Pen), Kenyon supplemented the poets’ modest income with the gift of 100 pounds a year. At his death, in1856, Kenyon bequeathed 11,000 pounds to Robert and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth completed Aurora Leigh, her most ambitious work, while she and Robert were staying with John Kenyon. Elizabeth dedicated the verse-novel to Kenyon:
“The words ’cousin’ and ‘friend’ are constantly recurring in this poem, the last pages of which have been finished under the hospitality of your roof, my own dearest cousin and friend…
Ending, therefore, and preparing once more to quit England, I leave in your hands this book, the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered; that as, through my various efforts in literature and steps in life, you have believed in me, borne with me, and been generous to me , far beyond the common uses of mere relationship or sympathy of mind, so you may kindly accept, in sight of the public, this poor sign of esteem, gratitude, and affection, from Your unforgetting EBB
The life-sized head and shoulders bust of Kenyon at 57 was done by Thomas Crawford in 1841. It eventually belonged to the Brownings. A generous donor gave it to the Browning Collection in 1944.