Robert Southey comments on Spenser as supplying subjects for painters, and describes to Joseph Cottle two pictures the Faerie Queene by John Wolcot's protege, the painter John Opie (1761-1807): "Sir Calepine Freeing Serena" (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798) and "The Freeing of Amoret by Britomart." Portions of the letter were printed in Joseph Cottle's Reminiscences.
The "Cave of Despair" was the set subject at the Royal Academy in 1819; Keats's friend Joseph Severn (1793-1879) was to exhibit: "I have this moment received a Letter from Severn, whom I have not seen for some time, he tells me he has finish'd a picture of Spenser's Cave of despair which is designed to contend for Judgement" Letters, ed. Forman (1931, 1947) 442.
My dear Cottle,
* * * Opie is indeed a very extraordinary man. I have now twice seen him. Without any thing of politeness, his manners are pleasing, though their freedom is out of the common; and his conversation, though in a half-uttered, half-Cornish, half croak is interesting. There is a strange contrast between his genius, which is not confined to painting, and the vulgarity of his appearance — of his manners and language sometimes. You will however easily conceive that a man who can paint like Opie must display the same taste on other subjects. He is very fond of Spenser. No author furnishes so many pictures, he says. You may have seen his "Britomart delivering Amoret." He has begun a picture from Spenser which he himself thinks his best design, but it has remained untouched for three years. The outline is wonderfully fine. It is the delivery of Serena from the Salvages, by Calepine. You will find the story in the 6th book of the "Fairy Queen." The subject has often struck me as fit for the painter.
I saw Dr. Gregory (Biographer of Chatterton) to-day; a very brown-looking man, of most pinquescent, and full-moon cheeks. There is much tallow in him. I like his wife, and perhaps him, too, but his christianity is of an intolerant order, and he affects a solemnity when talking of it, which savors of the high priest. When he comes before the physiognomical tribunal, we must melt him down. He is too portly. God bless you. * * *