In 1815 he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited his first work in oil, Hermia and Helena, a subject from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1819. He first met the poet John Keats in 1816.
In 1819, Severn was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Academy for his painting Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cave of Despair which was inspired by the epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. It was the first time the prize had been awarded in eight years and the painting was exhibited at the Academy in 1820. This award also allowed Severn to apply for a three years' travelling studentship, paid for by the Royal Academy.
According to a biography of Severn, published by Grant F Scott in 2005, Severn had an illegitimate child shortly before leaving England for Italy.
On 17 September 1820, Severn sailed on board the ship Maria Crowther from England to Italy with the famous English poet John Keats. Keats and Severn had already known one another in England, but they were only passing acquaintances, yet it was Severn who agreed to accompany him to Rome when all others could, or would, not. They arrived in Rome on 15 November 1820. The trip was supposed to cure Keats's lingering illness, which he suspected was tuberculosis, however his friends and several doctors disagreed and urged him to spend some time in a warm climate. In Rome they both lived in an apartment at number 26 Piazza di Spagna, just on the right side of the world famous Spanish Steps.
Severn had left England against his father's wishes, without much money and had no idea of the severity of Keats's condition. While in Rome during the winter of 1820-21, Severn wrote numerous letters about Keats to their mutual friends in England. Severn's letters are the considered the definitive account of the poet's final months and are used as the primary historical source for scholars of Keats final months of life. Selections from them are often present in biographies of Keats.
Severn nursed Keats in Italy until his death in February 1821, 3 months after having both arrived there. Severn's troubles were noted and understood by Keats himself, and he was later thanked for his devotion to Keats by the poet Percy Shelley in the preface to his pastoral elegy named Adonais which was written for Keats in 1821.
In 1861 he was appointed British consul in Rome, a post which he held till 1872, and during a great part of the time he also acted as Italian consul. He was often at odds with the UK government at home and only narrowly escaped being sacked. He eventually retired as consul in 1872.
His most remarkable work is the Spectre Ship from the Ancient Mariner. He painted Cordelia Watching by the Bed of Lear, The Roman Beggar, Ariel, The Fountain, and Rienzi, executed a large altarpiece for the church of St Paul at Rome, and produced many portraits, including one of Baron Bunsen and several of Keats.
Links to images and descriptions of Severn's drawings and paintings
The first significant collection of Severn's papers was published by William Sharp in 1892 in the book "The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn". Subsequent biographers have put doubt on the accuracy of Sharp's transcriptions and wondered about omissions. In 2005 Grant F Scott published "Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs" in which he redited the original material, added hundreds of "new" letters, added a largely unknown memoir and combined all this material with a critical commentary.