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March 2014

Vol. 156 / No. 1332

Kenwood House

Of all the houses open to the public that circle London’s outskirts, Kenwood is the most perfectly sited. At the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, it is famous for its backdrop of woods, lawns sloping down to its lake and the view from the terrace along its south front. It is famous too for Robert Adam’s remodelling and enlargement of the exterior and his suite of rooms inside that includes the exquisite library. Its third claim to fame is, of course, as the home of the Iveagh Bequest of old-master paintings (and, more recently, the Suffolk Collection of English portraits).

At the end of last year, following closure since March 2012, the house was re-opened to the public after an intense campaign of restoration and rearrangement by English Heritage. This far surpasses work undertaken in 2000 in its depth of research, attention to detail and the return, as far as possible, of its principal Adam rooms to their original schemes.

In essence Kenwood was the creation of the celebrated Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and of his nephew and heir. It was the former who called in Robert Adam to transform and enlarge the original house and the latter who employed Humphry Repton to substantially reform the grounds and landscape the park, even to diverting the highroad away from the house to its present route (Hampstead Lane), increasing privacy and providing that element of surprise as one reaches the house through the short wooded drive. And a surprise it remains. Furthermore, since the early nineteenth century, no major structural alterations were made. The succeeding Mansfield family occupants gradually withdrew from living at Kenwood, preferring Scone Palace, their home in Perthshire. In the first years of the twentieth century Kenwood was let to tenants and its future became alarmingly uncertain. Developers registered their interest in building over its desirable estate; in 1922 the contents of the house were sold in a ‘deplorable disposal’1 and many acres were shorn, although they were saved from developers by public appeal and added to Hampstead Heath. Two years later the vastly wealthy brewing magnate Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, purchased the house and the remaining seventy-four acres. He never lived in the house nor installed his collection there but on his death in 1927 he bequeathed Kenwood and sixty-three old-master paintings to the nation, a benefaction that ‘stunned the art world and was received with ‘general wonderment’.2

It was known that Lord Iveagh was a collector: a few works credited to his ownership were lent from time to time to London exhibitions from 1891 onwards. But it was the extent and quality that was astonishing, exceeding, for example, the Mond Bequest to the National Gallery in 1909. Almost his entire collection (four times the number of paintings than those selected for the bequest) was purchased during a few years either side of 1890 from Agnew’s, in particular Sir William Agnew. Business was conducted in considerable secrecy; and Agnew’s staff ‘used to be startled day by day at the conclusion of another huge deal’.3 Iveagh’s taste ran to Dutch, Flemish and British paintings almost exclusively and the latest paintings at Kenwood are by Landseer. At the time of his purchases, Iveagh had no idea of a gift or bequest in mind; the works were destined for his properties in London, Ireland and elsewhere.

The invariable object of a visit to Kenwood is the interiors and the Iveagh pictures, but visitors should not neglect – it is not well signposted – the Suffolk Collection displayed upstairs with its splendid if retardataire Jacobean portraits but ending with a ‘wriggle-and-chiffon’ Sargent of the 19th Countess of Suffolk, born into the Leiter millions in Chicago and who donated the Suffolk Collection to the nation.

When the Iveagh Bequest was first installed, the room furnishings were rudimentary, and additions, even after the last War, were described as execrable. From the 1960s matters improved, although it is only now that the last vestiges of the look of a superior hotel have been eradicated. The interior setting for the pictures is now perfectly balanced between the formal and the intimate. Only the library, or Great Room, now redecorated in its original cool colours – pale pink, green and blue – and de-gilded, suggests the opulence of a truly grand house. Early bills, a Mansfield inventory and hundreds of paint samples have been used to return it to Adam’s conception. Here and elsewhere some of the original furniture has come back through acquisition and loan. Modern, clubland sofas and chairs, available to visitors, are perhaps too insistently used in the rooms but the general feel is one of sparse elegance, uncluttered and unportentous. The somewhat irregular layout of the ground-floor rooms provides unexpected spatial effects and changes in light. This is particularly notable as one moves from the confined Great Stairs into James Adam’s chaste Ante-Chamber and gains the full prospect of the Great Room.

Ten years ago, in a review in this Magazine of Julius Bryant’s formidable catalogue of the Iveagh Bequest, Richard Green commented on the problem of ‘how to reconcile a paintings collection of international museum quality’ with a residence in which the furnishings had, for the most part, to be ‘invented’.4 Some visitors, while acknowledging the extraordinary efforts made by English Heritage, may well feel that the impact of the paintings is a little diminished, particularly the Rembrandt and the Vermeer in the Dining Room; and Gainsborough’s Countess Howe, holding court in the Music Room, is hung imperiously too high. Many of the paintings retain old-fashioned picture lights, as they might well have done had Lord Iveagh lived to display the collection. But surely some form of unobtrusive lighting might be installed in the future? Visitors of a certain age will not forget the superb impression made by Rembrandt’s self-portrait when it was hung in the airy light of the Orangery (now reserved for playschool groups, receptions etc.).

These reservations aside, English Heritage’s work is a triumph, re-presenting as it has the fruits of English justice, Irish brewing and American munificence, not five miles from Trafalgar Square.

1    Ralph Edwards’s words in a review in this Magazine, 106 (1964), pp.390–91, of an exhibition at Kenwood House of Adam-style furniture; he also commented on the  furnishings at Kenwood, particularly after the Second World War, decrying the contrast between the ‘splendour of the pictures’ and the lamentable look of the rooms (then under the care of the London County Council).
2    A.C.R. Carter: ‘The Iveagh Bequest’, The Burlington Magazine 51 (1927), p.310.
3    Ibid.
4    R. Green’s review of J. Bryant: Kenwood. Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest (New Haven and London 2003), The Burlington Magazine 146 (2004), pp.475–76.