Kenwood House: The Villa on the Heath

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As part of the conference ‘Animating the English Country House’ a visit was planned to explore Kenwood under the expert guidance of the newly appointed curator Dr. Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski. This was my first visit since the completion of the Caring for Kenwood project, the improvements are remarkable.

Kenwood is an interesting hybrid, it is not a real country house, nor is it a town house. This is a suburban Villa, designed for pleasure and short bucolic escapes yet close enough to London, of which it has some splendid views across the heath. Although famous for its association with Robert Adam, this is not a building designed in one phase, but rather one that grew and was added onto. At its core Kenwood has a seventeenth century double pile house that was originally constructed for 1616 for the printer of James I, John Bill. The house was inherited and sold several times, with regular additions and alterations being done. In 1746 it was acquired by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and he was responsible for the addition of the orangery. In 1756 William Murray purchased the house from the Earl of Bute. Murray was promoted to Lord Chief Justice in 1756 and he became Lord Mansfield. The house must have suited the requirements for it wasn’t till 1767 that Lord Mansfield contracted Robert Adam and his brother James to remodel the house. The brief was simple, use the existing structure, improve the external appearance, add a great room for entertaining, a library and update the existing interiors. Apparently King George III and Queen Charlotte were among the regular guests entertained at Kenwood.

The second Earl of Mansfield embarked on a scheme of improvements after inheriting the property in 1793. Two wings were added to the north front to accommodate a dining room and a music room, and an extensive service wing. The Earls of Mansfield in the nineteenth century preferred their Scottish seat Scone Palace and subsequently Kenwood was little used. After being rented out in the early 20th century the 6th Earl decided to sell and in 1922 the contents were sold at auction, and the estate was destined to be parcelled up. In 1924 Edward Guiness, 1st Earl of Iveagh leased the house and later bought it outright with the intention of donating it and part of his art collection to the nation. Although Lord Iveagh passed away in 1927 before he could supervise the project of furnishing the house the spirit of his donation was administered and upheld, and it is thanks to this generous bequest that we can enjoy Kenwood and its treasures to this day.

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On entering the house the difference with another creation by Adam, Kedleston Hall, could not be more dramatic and it clearly makes the point that this is not a country seat. This is a Villa designed for pleasure, and the decoration of the hall suggests this in the plasterwork and ceiling decoration which refer to Bacchus. One might be surprised to find a sideboard and cistern in the entrance hall but apparently the space was also used for formal dining by the first Lord Mansfield. The Sideboard, cistern and pair of urns are some of the original Adam pieces designed for the house that remained or were returned.

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The updating of the existing interiors was well executed, though perhaps not as exciting as some of Adams other works. The Antechamber is an exercise in simplicity compared to the Library, or Great Room for which it serves as a vestibule. The real joy of Adams contribution to the interiors is reserved for the Great Room.

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The Library was devised by Adam to combine the desire for a formal entertaining space and a library at the same time. It balances the Orangery at the west end of the house, thereby creating the extended symmetrical south front that is so admired. The change due to the recent conservation and reconstruction work are most dramatically felt in this room. Later decorative schemes had embellished upon the relative simplicity of Adam’s colourscheme by adding a lot of gilding and marble imitation. The crisp plasterwork with the fresh reconstructed palette of pale pink, blue and white is an absolute delight. 

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A detail of the ceiling of the Library. The fine mouldings frame paintings by Antonio Zucchi, the central oval depicts Hercules resisting temptation. 

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The Iveagh bequest, not just the house and estate but a very fine collection of artworks were gifted to the nation. In the Dining Room a collection of old masters vie for attention, with paintings by Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cuyp, and Van Dyck to name but a few all worth the visit individually. 

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The Upper Hall contains a rather radical departure from the overriding theme of classical antiquity, this stunning chimney piece carved and decorated in the fashionable Chinoiserie style by Adam in the 1770’s this was originally the main reception room in the house. The walls were once decorated with Chinese wallpaper but now display portraits from the Suffolk collection. 

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Like the Upper Hall this room on the first floor also displays part of the Suffolk collection of portraits. Although the quality of the artworks cannot be faulted the presentation is perhaps slightly out of tune with the approach taken on the ground floor. There is a lot of scope for a future interpretation project in these spaces. 

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Adam’s wonderful south front unified a structure that had developed over time, the white render concealing various shades of brick. The Orangery at the western end was balanced by the facade Adam created for the library at the east end.

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The Dairy, this delightfull addition to the estate was built between 1794-1795 for Louisa Cathcart, Countess of Mansfield by George Saunders and it replaced a slightly earlier Dairy on the same spot.

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