I don’t often make it over to the Estorick Collection – a gallery which I still think is one of the most unknown and undervalued in London. This afternoon I decided to take a break from the computer and drive to Canonbury. I know the Estorick is shut on a Monday (having nearly been caught out in the past) but, be warned everyone, it is also shut on a Tuesday. I arrived to find the gates locked. I was not a happy bunny to say the least.
So the challenge arose to find somewhere to visit on the way home in order not to have a wasted journey. My choices were Highgate Cemetery (but I didn’t really fancy walking around in the cold), Keat’s House, Freud’s House (also closed on a Tuesday (!)) or Kenwood House (one of my all time favourites). Kenwood won!
If you haven’t been then this really is a must-visit property. Known for its amazing summer concerts, which have not been without controversy over the past few years, and for having appeared in many films including Notting Hill, Kenwood, owned by English Heritage, is set in the parkland of Hampstead Heath.
Kenwood House. Image via www.english-heritage.org.uk.
The house dates from the 1600s but, on acquisition by Lord Mansfield in 1754, was remodelled into what we see today by Robert Adam, who worked on the stucco frontages, the North Front portico, the library wing and the third storey. It is acknowledged to be one of England’s greatest stately homes and an obvious identifier of Adam’s style; this was a terribly important commission for Adam due its position and would have propelled him into the awareness of the London aristocracy. There have always been problems with his famous stucco exterior and Lord Mansfield apparently commented that it would have been cheaper to cover the whole front with marble. Some of the details that are there today are replicated in fibre glass from Adam’s engraving.
Kenwood House. Own photograph.
Of course, the building has undergone many more changes since Adam’s involvement, including, in 1793, the addition of two wings by George Saunders that flank the entrance portico, but it still preserves the grandeur and elegance that Adam intended.
Kenwood House. Own photograph.
The library, then called the Great Room, is the epitome of Adam’s work, his tour de force and the house’s crowning glory. It would have appeared even more splendid in the 18th century as the climax of Adam’s suite of rooms. Remarkably, it remained nearly unaltered until 1922 when some of the furniture was sold at auction. It’s yet another place where I did some work experience during which I helped to conserve and clean not only some of the paintings but the library. Cleaning has never been top of my list of favourite things but there was a bit more to it than dusting and vacuuming.
The Great Room at Kenwood. Image via http://londonbytes.wordpress.com.
Kenwood also contains the Iveagh Bequest, the art collection of Edward Cecil Guinness, great grandson of the founder of the Dublin brewery. He retired early to devote himself to the collection of art and acquired works by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds, Turner, Hogarth as well as a self-portrait by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s Guitar Player, exemplifying his late style. Although the house couldn’t be more English in character it provides a setting for global art, an exemplar collection of the very best of European paintings.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, 1665. Image via www.rembrandtpainting.net.
Specialising in the 18th century, it’s hard for me to pick favourites but one of my personal highlights is Hogarth’s Taste in High Life which shows the folly and superficiality of aristocratic taste. A forerunner to Marriage à la Mode, the humour is typically Hogarthian showing two heavily caricatured connoisseurs in raptures over a mundane cup and saucer. Another aristocrat examines a black pageboy, a satire on his masters and the embodiment of the Orient and sexual excess. There is also a gorgeous small Constable of Hampstead Heath with Pond and Bathers from 1821, a view that Constable often painted to aid him with his focus on the sky.
Print of William Hogarth, Taste in High Life, 1746. Image via www.vam.ac.uk.
Outside, the landscaped gardens lead down to the beautiful lake and acres upon acres of muddy marshland. I always end up coming to Kenwood without my dogs despite this being a dog walkers’ paradise, probably because I appreciate the house too much and can spend time with my two slobbery Clumbers any day.
The fake bridge at Kenwood. Own photograph.
You’ll have to hurry to Kenwood as it is scheduled to close at the start of April for a £5.3 million restoration project that will include vital roof repairs, the replacement of the skylights, repointing and sweeping of more than 100 chimneys and the stripping down and repair of the façade.
Fear not! When I first heard this news I thought what a travesty it was to shut away such a wonderful collection even if repairs are essential but English Heritage has had great foresight and their incredible art collection will tour to three American galleries while the Vermeer will be loaned to the National Gallery.
The grounds, however, will still be open so there’s the opportunity to picnic and sunbathe, admire the contemporary sculpture and watch the restoration taking place but if you don’t manage to visit the house this month you’ll have to wait until late summer of next year.
Kenwood’s Orangerie. Image via www.omgimgettingmarried.com.
Kenwood is a beautiful place to visit and, amazingly English Heritage still open it to the public without charge. I wonder if this will change post-restoration. In the meantime, it is truly splendid and somewhere I don’t pop to often enough despite its close proximity to my home. I’m glad I was able to see it again before it closes and was able to turn my earlier misfortune to my advantage. Plus, rather surprisingly, I was even in appropriate footwear for a romp through the grounds.
Kenwood House is run by English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood-house/. It will be open until 31st March 2012.