This one is an old favourite, and increasingly noteworthy within the study of the English country house and more recently black history. Kenwood House is part of English Heritage’s portfolio and having recently completed an extensive restoration programme the house reopened to the public in 2013. Crucially, it is free of charge.
It is this restoration which perfectly reflects the enthusiasm of English Heritage overall; the research, knowledge and eventual interpretation of the site without ‘hidden extras’. Typically, I have found that those at English Heritage are eager to unveil as much as possible and at Kenwood House the feeling is one of progression and delight.
The fine art collection at Kenwood House incorporating the Iveagh Bequest and Suffolk Collection add to the resources available for any art historian and beyond. I remember visiting as a student in the late 1990s and being able to witness ‘in the flesh’ Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mary, Countess Howe (c.1764). Writing an essay on Gainsborough’s use of modern dress rather than classical or antiquity styled society ladies certainly gained pace after seeing this painting!
Kenwood’s social history is rich and offers up a great deal for debate in terms of contemporary ideals and household hierarchies particularly in terms of the role Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) had within the family and the society which they mixed. Again research into Dido’s life both at Kenwood and after her marriage has been undertaken by English Heritage, but a lot of her life seems to inconclusive. Born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, Dido was brought to England by her father as an infant to be placed under the guardianship of William Murray – a later pivotal owner of Kenwood House.
Theories abound about her portrait with her cousin Elizabeth (below), her position in the Murray household, and perceptions of her within wider society. It is difficult to pin anything down here as Dido is deserving of a post which allows for more discussion than can be committed here. There are some who argue that it was Dido’s illegitimacy rather than her heritage which played on the dynamics within the family. Yet her status as free woman seemed to have to be constantly reaffirmed and when Murray died he still felt it necessary to state this in his will when also noting Dido’s annuity of £100.
When I visited, the curator was conducting an informal tour for members of a small group undertaking research on a number of paintings in the collection. My eavesdropping wasn’t met with suspicion or annoyance though, and as I followed the recommended route around the house it was clear that all staff members are proud to not only be presenting but also to be a part of Kenwood’s story.
Built as a suburban villa rather than a country house with a centralised administration for the wider estate, the exact site for ‘Caen Wood’ House was established by the second decade of the 17th century. This earlier brick-built property located off Hampstead Lane in north London was later modernised about 1700. By 1746 the house was occupied by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and a nephew of the Earl of Ilay who by that date owned the property. Both Bute and Ilay shared an interest in exotic plants and it may have been Bute who added the orangery to the south west of the building.
Despite its modest size (the guidebook notes, ‘bigger than a town house but smaller than a country seat’) Kenwood’s development through this period is cleverly mapped in current literature as well as on the website. It is this sort of interpretation which makes architectural heritage so much more exciting and plausible for wider audiences.
In 1754 William Murray (1705-93), later 1st Earl of Mansfield acquired Kenwood from Lord Bute for £4,000. Under the ownership of the Murrays, the aesthetics of the house were destined to change dramatically. William Murray set out to appoint Robert Adam to improve the house from about 1764; an important move for the time and a competitive one which suggested that Murray intended to show his business and political stature was equal to that of the Childs at Osterley and the Percys at Syon – two other contemporary Adam projects (Adam being appointed from 1761 and 1762 respectively).
Of course, it is impossible to write about Adam at Kenwood without noting the truly magnificent library there. In the visits I have made to Kenwood I have seen both interpretations of this particular interior – the dark colour scheme and heavily gilded plasterwork, and the transformation made in recent years towards a less heavy application in colour thought more accurate of the original Adam interior.
The use of this room was for more formal entertainment by the Mansfields who otherwise used the upper hall for accommodating close friends. The two rooms today are vastly contrasting; where the library is bright and airy (it was considered difficult to heat even in the 18th century) and yet distinctive, the upper hall is somehow unsettled. Adam remodelled the upper hall in the fashionable chinioserie style but little remains of this apart from a fragment of wallpaper and the fire surround. Yet here are a number of pieces from the Suffolk Collection and once again time must be taken to study these away from published literature. If anything, the height of Stuart extravagance in dress is perfectly displayed in such minute detail that I doubt the full length portraits grow tiresome.
By the end of the 18th century a further extensive programme of remodelling took place which finally established the house as it may be seen today. This wave of building was at the instruction of David Murray, 2nd Earl Mansfield (1727-96) who inherited from his uncle. This Murray desired extra accommodation but also saw an opportunity to enhance the existing characteristics at Kenwood. In order to achieve this, his first act was to relocate Hampstead Lane several metres away from the original forecourt to allow the family more privacy. A new service wing was created to the east and two brick wings were added to the north front.
Admittedly, the service wing sits uncomfortably in its layout, and I am in agreement with Joseph Farington who noted in 1793 shortly after building work began that it was “considerable, and in respect of architectural effect, strange additions to the late Lord Mansfield’s house at Caenwood”. However, the most effective alteration at this time was achieved through the ambitions of Humphrey Repton whose appointment by Murray led to the opening up of the immediate surroundings of the house transforming it from grand suburban villa to that of a fine country mansion.
Even a new dairy building was created to the south west of the main house for Louisa, wife of the 2nd Earl. Kenwood was now every bit a country house in all but administrative purpose.
The 19th century saw general repair and maintenance take priority and steadily attention was turning to the significance of the surrounding locality – particularly Hampstead Heath to the south of the park. Portions of adjacent land were bought and sold to the Metropolitan Board of Works (later London County Council) in order to connect the park with the Heath and keep access open to the public and free from the developers. By the first decade of the 20th century, Kenwood was leased out and successive families took over the tenancy up to the 1920s.
It was not without its fluctuations in fortune and protracted discussions concerning Kenwood’s future which had begun in 1914 continued throughout the First World War. Alan David Murray, 6th Earl of Mansfield (1864-1935) had decided to sell the house and estate and local residents attempted to raise funds to prevent the land being developed for housing. In 1922 the house contents were sold by auction, but the relatively new Kenwood Preservation Council led by Sir Arthur Crosfield sought to vest in land to the south of the house. It was at this point that local resident Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927) stepped into the negotiations. Taking up a lease for 10 years in December 1924, he quickly implemented the use of his own family trust to purchase the remaining land with the intention of giving the house and estate with the addition of a selection of his own paintings collection to the nation.
Unfortunately, the supervision of the installation of objects was not to be fulfilled by Lord Iveagh himself who died in 1927 so instead this was undertaken by six administrative trustees including the then Director of the National Gallery. By the summer of 1928, Kenwood was open to the public and in 1929 The Iveagh Bequest Act established Kenwood as an independent museum.
I visited Kenwood on a bright but chilly day and took a snap decision to travel by tube as far as Hampstead and cross the Heath to the house. As a student I went by coach which inevitably parked up on Hampstead Lane in order to keep the group for straying too far. I recommend Kenwood is better approached from the Heath through the the scrub and woodland, across stream and passing the rhododendrons if this is possible. It might sound idyllic or on the other hand troublesome for those inclined for a quick stop off, but it offers a better sense of place. There are the tantalising glimpses of the house and the dairy as the path curves out of the Heath and the avenue approach withholds the real glamour of the house until the final steps.
Kenwood is the result of gradual input from successive owners, tenants and local benefactors; layers which are meshed together coherently by English Heritage. Long may the research continue.
Laura Houliston, The Suffolk Collection (2012)
Laura Houliton and Susan Jenkins, Kenwood and The Iveagh Bequest. English Heritage Guidebooks (2013)
N. Poser, Lord Mansfield. Justice in the Age of Reason (Montreal and Kingston, 2013)
The Telegraph celebrating the reopening in November 2013 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/Kenwood-House-reopens-in-London-first-look-inside/
William Murray, Lord Mansfield on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Murray,_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield
Historic England listing including extra detail of the earlier estate of ‘Caen Wood’ https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000142
Friends of Kenwood http://www.friendsofkenwood.org.uk/history.html
Statute – The Iveagh Bequest Act http://legislation.data.gov.uk/uksi/1997/482/made/data.html
Commentary and studies of Dido Elizabeth Belle
Dido Belle on the big screen 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/04/dido-belle-slaves-daughter-who-lived-in-georgian-elegance and http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2014/jun/11/belle-amma-asante-historically-accurate