Kenwood House exhibit proving it was ladies first

Exhibition tells the story of the women who lived there through a variety of artefacts

While Kenwood House is closed for refurbishment, there’s still a chance to see some of its treasures at an exhibition on the women of the Hampstead mansion.

English Heritage has selected letters, accounts, paintings, prints, furniture and other artefacts from Robert Adam’s neo-classical masterpiece to tell the story of the countesses and servants who lived there.

The exhibition runs at the Quadriga Gallery inside the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner.

Cathy Power, curator of The Ladies of Kenwood, says while the house’s history has been traditionally traced through earls and lords, she wanted to uncover the clues that point to the female influence on its d�cor and management.

“We tend to focus on the First Earl of Mansfield and Lord Iveagh but as you read the accounts and documents you realise behind every man there is a woman – and a whole band of household servants.

“The problem is that in the 18th and 19th centuries the man controlled all finances so the accounts of all commissions and purchases are through him – even if it was the woman’s decision.

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“You rarely find a bit of paper to show their influence, you have to pick up the nuances as you go through the correspondence.

“I hope to bring out a hidden personality to Kenwood, to give a sense of it as a functioning home with a mistress, children and servants, and enable those familiar with Kenwood to look at it through fresh eyes.”

One entry makes reference to blue wallpaper for Lady Mansfield’s room. Another reveals that the second countess laid the foundation for the service wing and her daughter Caroline for the music room.

“You think, what does that one line mean?” asks Power. “But when you see a fragment of very feminine Chinoiserie wallpaper and put it together with a surviving ornate chimney piece and the exotic fashionable Japanned furniture coming from the East India ships, you think that Lord Mansfield isn’t choosing this alone, there’s definitely a female hand there.”

One letter uncovers the third countess’s supervision of Kenwood’s dairy.

The architect Atkinson writes to the earl about choosing between existing fitted marble bowls or stand-alone Wedgewood ones, but wants to defer the decision until Lady Mansfield arrives.

“We know she chose to keep the marble ones because they are still there,” says Power.

Similarly the head gardener writes to the earl about changes in the flower garden he has already discussed with the third countess.

“They had to write to the third earl because he was the one who would pay for any bills but she was making the decisions.”

Sifting through surviving accounts books dating back to 1785, Power discovered the tally of servants doubled from ten female staff in the late 1700s to 20 under the third countess who had a family of seven children.

“They had more men, including a butler, steward, four footmen and a male cook.”

It was this countess who, from 1813 to 1816, undertook the costly redecoration of Kenwood into a fashionable Regency interior.

“This included redecorating the schoolroom, choosing curtains and decor, a whole world that wasn’t just decided by the third earl.”

The exhibition also features Dido Belle, the first earl’s illegitimate great niece who arrived at Kenwood in the early 1760s as a child.

Her father, Sir John Lindsay, the captain of a Royal Navy ship, travelled to the West Indies where he fathered a child with a black woman, Maria Belle.

He brought both back to London where Dido was baptised in St George’s, Hanover Square.

Neither servant nor family, Dido lived at Kenwood until the first earl’s death in 1793.

In his will he left her an annual allowance, and confirmed her freedom.

She married, had three sons and lived in Pimlico. Lindsay gifted her mother, Maria, land he had bought in Pensacola, Florida.

“Maria Belle claimed the land in 1774 paid to confirm her freedom – the manumission that slaves paid to purchase themselves from their owner,” says Power who can find no trace of Maria after 1778.

The Mansfields sold Kenwood to brewing magnate Edward Cecil Guinness, Lord Iveagh, in 1925. He died two years later leaving the house and his fabulous art collection to the nation. Portraits from the bequest of beautiful women who epitomise 18th century elegance are included in the exhibition.

Romney’s portrait of Emma Hart – Lady Hamilton – and Gainsborough’s image of Lady Eden will be on display until October 28. Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm.

Kenwood House is closed until autumn 2013.