A visit to Kenwood House

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Kenwood House stands on the north end of Hampstead Heath. A magnificent sight situated on the top of a hill with views extending over the Heath as far as the centre of London with the modern skyscrapers visible in the distance.

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Although we’ve stayed in Hampstead a few times over the last couple of years before our latest visit the house was closed for renovation. But it reopened recently and a visit was a must during our short break early January to see the house and it’s renowned collection of paintings.

There’s been a house on the site since the early 17th Century. It’s changed over the years but the magnificent white neo-Classical style building created by by the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who, with his brother James, remodelled and extended the building for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, between 1764 and 1779. Today it’s owned by the English Heritage after it was bequeathed to the nation, together with a collection of Old Master and British paintings, in 1925 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927).

When we arrived we were amazed to find that entry was free. The first time ever for a visit to an English Heritage property! But I later discovered that free entry was a condition of the Iveagh bequest.

Entrance was on the north of the house via this neo-Classical portico with it’s fluted Ionic order columns and triangular pediment, which was part of the remodelling by Robert and James Adam.

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Inside, the main architectural interest was Adam’s rather magnificent library, or ‘Great Room’.

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Although lined with books the room was mainly used for entertaining. (I wonder if anyone actually read the books – they were probably mainly for show, to impress visitors that the owner was well read and educated.) The room is beautifully proportioned and has a stunning ceiling featuring paintings by Antonio Zucchi, and It has a decorative frieze. I snapped the above photo on my phone and it really wasn’t possible to get a decent shot that does justice to this room that is considered (according to the guidebook!) to be is one of Adam’s greatest interiors. There’s a better photo here (no visitors to get in the way!) together with some information on the restoration work.

During the recent renovation English Heritage had extensive paint analysis undertaken and have restored Adam’s original rather restrained powder blue and white decorative scheme, which has almost a Modernist look. Looking at pictures in the guidebook it was much more heavily decorated with lots of gilding and bright colours. I reckon it’s probably an improvement, but then I don’t like over fussy decoration. I don’t know whether regular visitors would agree. It would be interesting to read any comments on this (What do you think Milady?)

There are three other main surviving Adam interiors – the entrance hall, Great Stairs and antechamber. They have clearly been changed over time, but the English Heritage website tells us that

they retain considerable fabric and character from Adam’s time

 

Another attraction for us was the art collection, that had been

There were numerous portraits from the major portrait painters from the second half of the 18th century. Works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and George Romney, who we have got to know very well due to the collection of his works held by Abbot Hall in his home town of Kendal.  We are now able to recognise his works at first glance! The Romney paintings included several featuring his muse Emma Hart – better known as Lady Hamilton.

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Emma Hart at Prayer by George Romney

There were also a significant collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings including  a self-portrait Rembrandt’s  (c 1665)

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But, for me, this little beauty was the best of the lot.

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The Guitar Player (c 1672), Johannes Vermeer

There were also sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the grounds.

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Monolith-Empyrean (1953) Barbara Hepworth

We didn’t explore the grounds and gardens, it was far too muddy underfoot. We’ll save that for another time.

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