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.

Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal

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On Thursday I took a day off work and we drove up the M6 to Kendal where we’d decided we’d visit the Abbot Hall Art Gallery. It’s an old Georgian house, built in 1759, which is situated in a very pleasant location on the river bank close to the centre of the old market town. The gallery opened 50 years ago after the house, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, had been renovated by a group of local people who had formed a charitable trust to work to save the building. When the renovation work had been completed they had to decide what to do with the house, and came up with the idea of turning it into an art gallery. The next step was to get hold of some art to show in their gallery! Over the 50 years they’ve accumulated an excellent collection of works from the 18th & 19th Century and Modern and Contemporary artists. Their achievement just shows what can be done with commitment and imagination.

The main reason for our visit was to have a look at an exhibition of watercolours by Turner and other artists – Turner and his Contemporaries: The Hickman Bacon Watercolour Collection. I’d found out about it only a few days before and as it was due to close at the weekend we decided to travel up to the gallery. Its (normally) only an hour’s drive away, but, despite this, we’d never been before.

Downstairs the rooms have been restored and decorated in the Georgian style. The two main rooms are used to display paintings and furniture from the 18th century  so that they can be viewed in an appropriate setting. These included paintings by George Romney (1734 – 1802), a fashionable portrait painter who was born in nearby Dalton in Furness. I’m not particularly keen on art from this period, especially portraits of wealthy people, but I liked some of the works on display, particularly Artist’s Brother James Holding Candle, Study: The Death of General Wolfe at Quebec in 1759 and Emma Hart as Miranda. Emma Hart was the maiden name of Emma Hamilton, who was well known as the mistress of Admiral Nelson. She was something of a muse for Romney as he painted several pictures of her.

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Emma Hart as Miranda by Georg Romney Source: Wikipedia

There’s some good information on Romney, Emma Hamilton and their relationship on the Liverpool Walker Gallery website.

Also downstairs there was an exhibition of watercolours painted by Edward Wilson who had accompanied Captain Scott on both his expeditions to Antarctica, and was one of the five men, including Scott, who died on that fatal journey in 1912. The paintings are all part of the Abbot’s collection and were being shown for the centenary of his death.

The rooms upstairs had been in a very poor state of repair before the house was renovated and so have not been restored in their original style. Instead they’ve been converted into a more modern gallery space with lower ceilings and plain walls. The main temporary exhibition, Turner and his Contemporaries: The Hickman Bacon Watercolour Collection, was being shown in three of the rooms. More modern art, from the 20th and 21st Centuries  by a range of artists, were displayed in the remaining rooms.

We thought that this was an excellent gallery and really regret not having visited it before. We’ll certainly be going back there again. The entry fee is a little pricey, especially as parking isn’t free, but I guess this is their main source of income and I thought we got good value for our money.

I’m particularly keen to see a couple of forthcoming exhibitions. Abbot Hall at Fifty which is running between 27 April and 9 June 2012 and will feature 50 works from the Gallery’s own collection. They will also be showing an exhibition of works by the Manchester born contemporary painter Hughie O’Donoghue at the end of the year between 28 September – 22 December 2012. I previously saw, and enjoyed, an exhibition of his work in Dublin at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2009.