Monday, 11 May 2015

Fenton House

Hampstead Grove,
London NW3 6SP
Wednesday May 6th 2015

I would like to say this was easy to find but for some reason as you exit deep from the bowels of the earth, Hampstead Underground Station, it is the signs for those other Hampstead delights – Willow Road and Keats’ House – that catch the eye. I was almost halfway to Belsize Park before realising this was not the way to go – my hint would be to head straight up the hill the biggest sign being for the Holly Bush pub and keep going right.

Fenton House is impressively large given the now limited space available up on the hill but of course it would have pre-dated many of the other buildings, built as it was probably in 1686. It has had innumerable owners and tenants taking a whole page in the National Trust guide book but I suppose they key people were the Fentons, after whom the brick-built family home was named, and Lady Binning the last owner, avid collector and benefactor to the National Trust in 1952. Most of the owners were stolidly middle class – merchants, lawyers even a gas engineer (to the Ottoman Empire no less). There are actually only eight rooms to visit on the two main floors and then six additional rooms within the attic space on the second floor, so while grand and with beautiful pieces of furniture you can just about imagine yourself living there…

All the rooms have generous windows with excellent views over front and back gardens which are of course maintained to a wonderful standard. The downstairs rooms, as you might expect, were used for reception, dining, the smaller as a library with the upper floor for bedrooms and more intimate drawing rooms.

Rather than itemise the displays in each room it seems more straightforward to look at the different collections.

The musical instruments from the Benton Fletcher Collection in the main were re-homed (it’s not just dogs you see) post war after their original habitat was destroyed. Loosely speaking they are of the piano family, so harpsichords, virginals and even a hurdy-gurdy and you can hear one here – quite folky though a little goes a long way… also lutes – as you are all better at this than me you can fit the names to the pictures!! If you visit PM some days there are skilled performers who conjure music from these pretty little domestic sized instruments, some very beautifully decorated and hand crafted out of fine woods.

The furniture in most rooms is beautiful, appropriate to the age of the house, well maintained   and delicate rather than heavy or obtrusive so there are pretty occasional and dining tables, a travelling desk, wickerwork chairs, and a range of glass fronted display cabinets though some of these are more recent and as a novelty contained electric lighting!

The most prolific collection is the ceramic one spanning both overseas and domestic items. Downstairs you will find the rather ‘frilly’ that is rococo style Meissen figures with the usual harlequinade characters though we warmed more to the down to earth butcher and letter writer. Upstairs were less finely finished English pottery pieces, Rockingham and Staffs varied. These included one of my weaknesses – cow creamers – and coming from a family of collectors I can see how a single (widowed lady) of generous means could fall into buying several examples of miniature sheep, cows etc. There are tea-sets too though of the grotesque rather than useful variety – in fact there is very little that is of a practical nature  and as Jo would say requires an army of domestics to keep it dusted.

There is also a floor to ceiling cabinet containing a range of blue Chinese pottery – we understood that the collection of this used to be even bigger but the better pieces went to the V&A. Compared to the rather busy figurines it is always soothing to contemplate a Chinese plate or celadon bowl…

Lady Binning whiled away some of her time doing tapestry footstools but the house actually contains a substantial number of fine tapestries – some original, some facsimile in her ‘re-created’ bedroom. The Stuart pictures, though faded are finely done, and blend in with the oriental themes.

The artwork is also impressive, most evidently in the Dining Room broken through to include the morning room (oh, we love a floor plan) where some-one invested in what might be loosely termed the Camden Town Group, an Edwardian era of more modest domestic paintings – in other words you can imagine them hanging in your own house as opposed to a grand gallery though of course the Tate has a very fine collection.  

Fenton House examples include Spencer Gore, several Sickerts and a lovely Duncan Grant though he does not quite count. I would guess the buyer for this house eschewed some  of the more urban paintings of buses and gasworks but we did enjoy Dame Laura Knight’s picture of ‘Woman Getting Dressed’: she might have belonged to the group had they allowed women in.

Up on the attic floor there are still ceramics to be seen but certainly the more interesting and venerable instruments are here – possibly at risk from both beetles and the breezes from the balcony.

Although when we were let into the house we were told the balcony was not open to the public as it was wet and therefore dangerous, when the curator spotted us he deemed us ‘sensible enough’ (little does he know)  to be trusted out on the small balcony which has a wonderful view. The Shard and other distant London landmarks are now a bit ubiquitous but  unique here was the opportunity to look over the walls of various grand (and regrettably empty)  Hampstead houses. This led to a shared heated invective against absentee landlords, speculative letting and overseas investors, who had little care or loyalty for local areas or community – a situation which is scarcely likely to improve. The whole ‘footprint’ of Fenton House is impressively large when viewed from above.

What had started with bright sunshine had within the space of a tube journey turned into a damp drizzly morning so we did not see the gardens at their best, but apart from some stolid gardeners we did have them to ourselves. The National Trust have of course worked hard on the restoration side of things and there is little more to say than the formal side matches the period of the house. Within it lies also a sunken garden which I am sure would capture the sun.

Through a gap in the carefully clipped hedges and cone shaped trees you can access the produce side – at least half of this is an old orchard and additionally the Trust have used young apple branches espaliered into a low fence; it will be interesting to see how this develops. Beyond that the vegetable beds were being assiduously prepared.

A devotee of any of the collections mentioned above could have spent longer lingering but we were very happy with the ensemble experience of Fenton House – why Fenton – well the owner who was a Baltic merchant (rather touchingly his daughter was born in Riga) seems to have had his name stick and who are we to argue two hundred years later?  

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