London NW3 7JR
Thursday July 17th 2014
Let’s be clear: a trip to Kenwood, located in a superior position on Hampstead Heath, with both house and garden, could be a ‘grand day out’ at any time of the year and what’s more a free one. The fact that I spent only a couple of hours there is not a reflection of my superficial approach but more like keeping up with an old friend who has had a facelift; in truth I have been taken and taking visitors to Kenwood for over 50 years.
Today’s trip was inspired by seeing 'Belle' at the cinema and it certainly gave me a different perspective to walking round the house, dotted as it is with family portraits of the 1st Lord Mansfield, wonderfully portrayed by Tom Wilkinson in his role as Lord Chief Justice.
There are pictures too of other family members and of course Dido Belle herself, though what is at Kenwood these days is a copy as the original is now in Scotland. Though apparently most of the inside shots for the film were Osterley rather than Kenwood it has given the house a family feel.
The house is of course more famous for its Adam interiors and its collection of more world renowned, non family paintings including a wonderful Rembrandt self-portrait and three Van Dycks and a tiny intimate Vermeer. When younger I used to bleep over the Dutch landscapes but now find them quite restful. Certainly on a hot day a view over a canal in winter is very cooling! Lord Iveagh, who bought many of these artworks and bequeathed them and the house to the Nation, obviously liked calming works of art and portraits of pretty ladies and little girls. I was pleased to see that my favourite 1630 de Jongh of the old London Bridge is still there, almost 3D in its quality.
As a child I used to stand in wonder behind the velvet rope that stopped visitors from going into the library and gaze at its ornate ceiling – really rather more like confectionery than plaster work, it is so finely executed. Today you can sit in the Library and savour its stillness. English Heritage have provided leather sofas and armchairs in most rooms and along with the excellent room guides – handy but sturdy books in large print with a painting or piece of furniture per page. The information is just enough and for the really keen the full catalogues are also made available. Additionally there are small random exhibits for e.g. a facsimile of Mr Repton’s business card or a historic postcard of the view over London. So not only is the whole tour of the house free but you do not even have to buy a guide book to get a fuller experience – at the level and pace you want. There is also a children’s backpack and the orangery, which used to be full of rather tired looking citrus trees, now houses the educational toys and tools.
There are more exhibits, miniatures and the like upstairs, which today was shut to the public because of a conference. No matter. I wandered out into the gardens, which the 2nd Lord Mansfield (a nephew of the 1st and rather less conscientious in his family commitments) had had Repton remodel the garden “to display in its full force a terminating scene the most magnificent that can be conceived’ which means today instead of a rather duty lane you can enjoy a steeply dipping lawn (complete with children rolling down it) ending in a lake and ‘fake bridge’. A bemused visitor was saying ‘What you mean a fake bridge?’ Up close it’s like a stage set and two dimensional. We were last here in the late autumn trying to locate one of the sources of the River Fleet which supposedly starts somewhere near the bottom of the slope. Today I got no further than the nearest bench (so many folk have donated benches in memory of loved ones they must be running out of space to put them) so I sat admiring the human-like form of the Barbara Hepworth sculpture which has the most up itself title. 'Monolith Empyrean'??
Then it was back through the rhododendron and ivy tunnels to the brief bit of Hampstead Heath where the Corporation of London has placed a concrete slab so photographers can take their panoramic shots without getting their feet muddy. Today was a dusty rather than muddy day and the view too hazy to be really spectacular.
Another thoughtfully placed bench by the roadside made waiting for the trusty Route 210 back to the Northern Line a pleasure but you could of course ‘make a day of it’ and walk on down across the Heath and leave via a range of other public transport options.
There are of course both shopping and eating opportunities at 'The Brewhouse' in the grounds....