Kenwood House’s centuries of art and artistocracy ahead of its 90th anniversary of being open to the public
- Credit: Historic England
Last Wednesday marked the 90th anniversary of Kenwood House’s opening to the public in 1928. But the iconic stately home on the edge of Hampstead Heath is more than four centuries old. Joe Graber delves into its past.
This week marks the 90th Anniversary of Kenwood House opening to the public for the first time, but its history goes far deeper.
The first house on the site appeared in 1816, owned by King James I’s printer, John Bill. It set the tone for centuries of aristocracy gracing Hampstead.
“Kenwood has many layers to its history, from its magnificent architecture to its art collection,” says Dr Allison Goudie, curator at Kenwood House. The two most significant figures in Kenwood’s history acquired the building two centuries apart. Lord Mansfield, who oversaw the remodelling by Robert Adam and Lord Iveagh, played an instrumental role in opening Kenwood to the public.
He acquired Kenwood as William Murray in 1754, having come to England from Scottish nobility, initially using the building as a weekend retreat. Murray’s social status then grew; he became Lord Chief Justice in 1756 before being created as 1st Earl of Mansfield in 1776.
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“Mansfield grew fonder and fonder of Kenwood. He used it as a retreat and accommodated family members there,” said Dr Goudie.
Mansfield decided to hire Scottish architect Robert Adam to remodel the building. It proved to be an inspired decision.
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“Adam produced a masterpiece, modernising the interiors of the library and entrance room,” said Dr Goudie.
Adam claimed that Lord Mansfield “gave full scope to my ideas”, which also included the existing giant pedimented portico. After Mansfield’s death in 1793, the house was acquired by the successors to the Earldom. The 2nd Earl, Mansfield’s nephew David Murray, commissioned new dining and music rooms and moved Kenwood to give it more privacy.
In the 19th century, the Mansfields preferred to live on their Scottish estate.
“The Mansfields had differing degrees of interest,” said Dr Goudie. “The 4th Earl spent three months of the year there but they preferred to live at Scone Palace in Scotland.”
The 6th Earl decided to sell Kenwood in 1914 after renting it out since 1909. Even the tenants brought history and aristocracy to the building.
“Among the tenants that lived there were the Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch, second cousin to the last Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and American millionaire Nancy Leeds, which adds a further sense of history to Kenwood,” said Dr Goudie.
The entire contents of the house were sold off in 1922. Kenwood’s future would be secured three years later after it was purchased by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh.
Lord Iveagh is a key figure in Kenwood’s tale, but didn’t spend much time in the building.
Dr Goudie explained: “Lord Iveagh never really lived in Kenwood. He bought it in 1925 but died in 1927. He did, however, leave a great legacy.”
The house was bequeathed to the nation by Lord Iveagh. He left a glorious art collection, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Gainsborough.
“By and large, the artworks did not belong to who you would expect,” the curator added, “but Iveagh wanted the public to see the possessions that reflected the status of an 18th century gentleman.”
Lord Iveagh’s decision caused much excitement, reversing a trend of fine artwork being sold overseas.
Dr Goudie said: “The news was tremendously exciting.
“At a time when art was being taken away from Britain, the finest set of masterpieces given to the nation in the 20th century would be open to all.”
During the Second World War, the building housed servicemen before being handed over to the former London County Council in 1949.
English Heritage took over Kenwood in 1986, and oversaw the “Caring for Kenwood” project, which involved extensive renovation work, in 2012.
“The project involved the exterior and interior of the house being painted in Adam’s original scheme,” said Dr Goudie.
The 90th anniversary is to be marked with a number of events. Volunteers are today set to give a guided tour, allowing them to see the house through the eyes of Lord Iveagh.
In October, further events involving art historian and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon and Julias Bryant, author of the 2003 catalogue of paintings in the Iveagh Bequest, will be held.
It will be a fitting way to celebrate a fascinating building.