For those who do not know Kenwood, it is a superb country house set on the northern edge of Hampstead Heath and thus rather remote from public transport. It was built, or rather tarted up by Robert Adam for Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (1705-1793), and remained in his family until after the First World War when it was put on the market and eventually bought by Lord Iveagh, who had made a fortune by selling the Guinness brewery on the Stock Exchange. The furniture had unfortunately already been sold off, so he turned it into an art gallery and filled it with some of the pictures to which he had devoted his fortune, buying up the cream of the market, particularly classical English portraits by Gainsborough, Romney, and Reynolds. Kenwood has now become part of the portfolio of English Heritage, but it needed major structural repairs – the roof was leaking - and it has been closed for two years for a complete revamp. The critics have been, and have for the most part swooned with praise. How far is this praise justified?
First of all, a big plus: they allow you to take photographs. I always object to places where you are not allowed to take photographs because the main way I study something is by studying the photographs afterwards. Previously photos were forbidden, and I had to take them surreptitiously; now they are permitted. So how does the house face up?
The first question is what have they done to the great rooms at either end of the house? At one end is the Orangerie, which used to house Gainsborough’s superb portrait of Countess Howe seen below – it was on the far wall, but it was then removed because it was in danger of fading. It was then turned into a room for talks and recitals, but now it has been turned into a kiddie’s playroom. I was shocked and automatically disapproved – it was so noisy. But on reflection I think I was rather harsh and it will be very useful when I take my grand-daughters there.
This is the most famous of the English portraits of Kenwood, a magnificent portrait of Lady Howe by Gainsborough.
At The other grand room at Kenwood is the library situated in the wing at the eastern end. Here we see photos of it before the restoration top, and after the restoration below. All the critics raved to say how much better it is, but I was perverse and prefered the earlier version as I thought the new version was rather drab. However when I placed the two photos side by side, I note that both I and the critics were wrong – the walls are exactly the same colour as before; the magnificent ceiling is unchanged, though with lighting installed, and perhaps some of the gold leaf removed. The main change is that the magnificent carpet has been removed and replaced by a wooden floor. I must say I prefer the carpet which I think gives the room a much brighter appearance.
However the other major change is that whereas before you could only walk down the middle and the sides were all roped off, you can now wander free throughout the whole room, which again is a great improvement. It is an object lesson in the tricks that memory can play.
The main impression is it is now very much more a heavyweight Picture Gallery. Previously there was an effort made to give the feeling of a country house, but now there are more pictures – all the old familiar ones, and more besides. Of particularly interest – and none of the reviews seem to have picked this up – is upstairs there is an entirely new collection. This is known as the Suffolk Collection and it is a fine collection of mainly Jacobean portraits – mostly royal.
However they include one of John Hampden, who famously refused to pay the ship money. This had previously been in the collection at the Rangers House at Greenwich, but it has now been moved to Kenwood and put on the first floor. I much preferred the display, as the rooms were painted in dark colours which made the paintings stand out more effectively.
So how would I mark the new display? I think basically, beta plus, perhaps even beta ++: in other words, modified rapture. The entrance hall is a triumph in that instead of having a desk with people sitting behind it, they have a table to one side and a fire burning in the grate, which makes it far more intimate. When Lord Iveagh left his collection to the nation, he stipulated that it should be free: English Heritage always grind their teeth over this, having been lumbered with this dreadful white elephant which they can’t charge for; but it means that they do not need to have the paraphernalia of ticket booths – you can just walk straight in.
The house a whole with its magnificent portraits, its Turner, its self-portrait by Rembrandt painted when he had just lost his wife and had just been declared bankrupt, but was still proud to proclaim himself as a painter, and its Vermeer – one of only thirty six in existence – all make Kenwood into a superb picture gallery; and do not forget to go upstairs.
There is of course a shop, where they had on display the latest English Heritage on Slavery and the British Country House. They do not appear to be aware that it was Lord Mansfield who built Kenwood was the Lord Chief Justice who famously declared that slavery had never existed in Britain: the abolition of slavery is something which we should be proud of, and it is a pity that English Heritage should publish a book which gives the reverse impression.