Kenwood House Reopens Displaying Masterpieces By Vermeer And Rembrandt

Kenwood House has reopened to the public. The masterpiece is complete, the paint is dry and this spectacular stately home is now restored to its former glory. Set on the edge of Hampstead Heath and surrounded by tranquil landscaped gardens, Kenwood is one of London’s hidden gems.The House, its breathtaking interiors and stunning art collection are free for everyone to enjoy. Discover the vast array of masterpieces hanging in this grand setting, including Rembrandt’s self portrait, Vermeer’s Lute Player and be awed by the breathtaking beauty of architect Robert Adam’s library.

Kenwood House, on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath, was remodelled and extended by the Scottish architect Robert Adam for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, from 1764 to 1779. The interiors designed by Adam include some of his finest surviving schemes, particularly the ‘Great Room’ or library. After Kenwood’s original contents were sold in 1922 the house and grounds were bought by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, who in 1927 bequeathed his outstanding collection of paintings to the nation.  

The original house at Kenwood, probably built in the early 17th century, was transformed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and 1770s into a fine neoclassical villa for the 1st Earl of Mansfield, perhaps the greatest British judge of the 18th century. Kenwood is now home to the 1st Earl of Iveagh’s collection of Old Master and British paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others. In 2012 a major refurbishment project began, and the house reopened in late 2013.  

The first house on the site was probably a brick structure built by John Bill, King James I’s printer, who bought the estate in 1616. His son and grandson owned it until 1690, when it was sold to Brook Bridges for £3,400. The house, which was already substantial (24 hearths were recorded in the 1665 Hearth Tax assessment), was significantly modified in about 1700, possibly by Brook Bridges’ son, William, who owned Kenwood from 1694 to 1705. The new house was a two-storey red brick building with stone quoins, large sash windows, a hipped roof and a projecting central section with a triangular pediment.   

Kenwood changed hands several times in the 18th century. From 1704 to 1711 it belonged to a London merchant, John Walter, and then to William, 4th Earl of Berkeley. He sold it to John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll, in 1712. In 1746 the Scottish aristocrat John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, acquired Kenwood. His interest in plants probably led to the addition of the orangery to the west of the south front and the introduction of new species to the grounds.

His mother-in-law, the well-travelled Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wrote to her daughter in 1749:  ‘I very well remember Caenwood House … I do not question Lord Bute’s good taste in the improvements round it, or yours in the choice of furniture.’

The footprint of this house first appears on John Rocque’s plan of Westminster and Southwark of 1746,and Mary Delany’s drawing of 17 June 1756 (above) shows it as a ‘double pile’ house painted white, with a steeply pitched roof and dormer windows.

Adam’s changes included the addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico. He originally designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.
Adam also modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’.

The extent of Adam’s alterations on the first floor is difficult to assess as no original floorplan survives, but he certainly produced new schemes for Lord and Lady Mansfield’s bedchambers and designed the chinoiserie chimneypiece, which survives in the upper hall. Adam claimed that Lord Mansfield ‘gave full scope to my ideas’ when he published plans of Kenwood in 1774.

The 6th Earl of Mansfield, Alan David Murray (1864–1935), inherited Kenwood from his brother in 1906, but decided to sell it in 1914. From 1909 it had been rented out to tenants, including Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch (1861–1929; second cousin to the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II) and his family, who lived there until 1917. They were followed by the American millionairess Nancy Leeds, who moved out when she married Prince Christopher of Greece in 1920.
In November 1922 Lord Mansfield sold off the contents of the house, including some of the original furnishings, in a four-day sale. By 1925, however, Kenwood’s future was secured when Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927), bought the house and 74 acres immediately surrounding it. The Kenwood Preservation Council purchased land including the ponds and ‘Ken Wood’, and vested it in London County Council.

The Iveagh Bequest Act of 1929 stipulated that Kenwood should be open free of charge to the public with the ‘mansion and its contents … preserved as a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century’,[8] including the display of 63 of Lord Iveagh’s outstanding collection of Old Master and British paintings.

During the Second World War Kenwood housed servicemen. In 1949, realising the need for significant repair work, the Iveagh Bequest Trustees handed it over to London County Council. It was taken over by English Heritage in 1986.

Following an extensive repair and conservation project begun in 2012, part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Kenwood reopened in late 2013.  Work included repairing the Westmorland slate roof and redecorating the exterior and interior of the house, based on new paint research on the original Adam scheme, and a redisplay of the Iveagh Bequest paintings in the south front rooms.


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