The people of Kenwood House, Hampstead

Kenwood House in Hampstead (otherwise known as The Iveagh Bequest) has been more than a little elusive to me for just over a year. Neoclassical villas as lovely as this should be seen illuminated by sunshine (or at least decent daylight) however, the British weather has kept me from capturing its full beauty.

Kenwood House, Hampstead, London

Picture credit: Stu Smith / Flickr

I still haven’t managed to get many decent photos, but I have learned a lot about some of the people who have made Kenwood House what it is today, and I can’t think of a better way to tell you about the house than to tell you about them.

Robert Adam

Library of Kenwood House, Hampstead, London

Robert Adam’s library at Kenwood House (Picture credit: Jörg Bittner Unna / Wikimedia Commons)

Aside from Lord Iveagh’s art collection (see below), much of what we admire at Kenwood House today is the work of the architect and designer Robert Adam, who was employed alongside his brother James by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield to decorate Kenwood between 1767 and 1779.

“[Lord Mansfield] gave full scope to my ideas: nor were they confined by any circumstances, but the necessity of preserving the proper exterior similitude between the new and the old parts of the buildings.”

Robert Adam, The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam

One of Adam’s most striking designs is undoubtedly the library, which is regarded as one of his finest works; it was intended both to house Lord Mansfield’s vast collection of books and also to be the climax of the route through the house.

Robert Adam quote at Kenwood House

Image: A Peace of London

Adam was so proud of Kenwood’s library that he featured it alongside masterpieces such as Syon House in The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam.

Entrance hall of Kenwood House, Hampstead, London

The entrance hall at Kenwood House featuring Robert Adam’s sideboard, pedestals and wine cooler at the far end (Picture credit: Jörg Bittner Unna / Wikimedia Commons)

Adam also designed much of the Mansfields’ furniture at Kenwood and there are still examples of his designs dotted around today, including the sideboard, pedestals and wine cooler that can be seen in the entrance hall.

Exterior of Kenwood House, Hampstead, London

(Picture credit: Panhard / Wikimedia Commons)

And not forgetting Adam’s changes to the outside of the building, which included the stunning portico on the south front (pictured above); this hid the earlier brick building and hinted at the grand interiors that awaited Lord Mansfield’s guests.

Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh

Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh and owner of Kenwood House

Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (Picture: public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (of the Guinness Breweries family) bought Kenwood House in 1925 to house part of his collection of paintings, with the intention of leaving it all to the nation in his will. When he died two years later, he bequeathed 63 paintings to Kenwood and stipulated that the house should be opened to the public so that some of his most treasured paintings could be enjoyed by everyone.

Rembrandt and Reynolds self-portraits at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London

The Rembrandt (bottom) and Reynolds (top) self-portraits at Kenwood House (Image: A Peace of London)

The 63 paintings that Lord Iveagh left are still displayed and conserved at Kenwood by English Heritage and include Rembrandt’s self-portrait — bought for £27,500 in 1888 — and other works by Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough, which are all still available to see and enjoy for free.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

Born in 1761, Dido Belle (pictured above left with her cousin) was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved black woman called Maria Bell. It’s believed that Dido was conceived during one of her father’s trips to Jamaica as an Royal Navy officer.

Dido, Maria and her stepfather were living in London by 1766, before Dido was moved to Kenwood House to be raised by Lord Mansfield, her father’s uncle (see below); by this time, her mother had moved back to Jamaica.

While records of her annual allowance suggest that her status within the household was below that of the rest of her family at Kenwood, Dido was raised as a lady. She was taught to read, write and play music, and supervised Kenwood’s dairy — a task normally given to the lady of the house.

Kenwood House gardens

Image: A Peace of London

As a mixed-race gentlewoman living in London at the height of the slave trade, Dido’s status within the house was extremely unusual for the time. Visitors to the house commented on her closeness to her cousin Elizabeth; in the only known painting of Dido (above) she is dressed in expensive clothes like her cousin, however, the fruit she carries and her turban suggest that she is still considered different. Her uncle’s will left Dido with less inheritance than her cousin, although this may have also been because she was illegitimate.

According to her father’s obituary, Dido’s personality and skills gained ‘the highest respect from all his Lordship’s relations and visitants’. She never returned to Jamaica; instead, she moved to Pimlico where she lived with her husband and three children until her death in 1804.

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

The second of our notable Kenwood residents is Dido Belle’s great uncle (and Robert Adam’s patron) William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who bought the house for £4,000 in 1754.

Kenwood House, London by Vitalba and Pastorini. Published 1774

Kenwood House, London by Vitalba and Pastorini. Published 1774. (Public domain on Wikimedia Commons)

Lord Mansfield became Lord Chief Justice shortly after acquiring the house and, as the most important judge in the country, he made sure the house reflected his own increasing wealth and status. He was known as an entertainer and Kenwood provided the perfect backdrop to host fellow lawyers, politicians, artists and — according to the artist William Birch — King George III and Queen Charlotte.

But among Lord Mansfield’s most prominent achievements was his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. As Lord Chief Justice — the most powerful judge in England — he presided over landmark court cases in the history of slavery and the slave trade. These included the case of James Somerset 1772, in which he ruled that slaves could not be sent out of England against their will.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was still 61 years away, but Lord Mansfield’s ruling is widely held to be one of the key moments in the road to the end of the transatlantic slave trade.

The essentials…

Opening times: Daily, 10am-5pm (until 4pm October-March)

Nearest Tube: Hampstead / Golders Green

More information: Visit the English Heritage website here. For more information on the people and history of Kenwood House, buy a guidebook here.

Comments (05)

  1. Don’t forget what is one of the finest paintings in the collection, Vermeer’s The Guitar Player.

    1. That’s a very interesting painting as well, Maria. The curator talks about it on his tour and it was fascinating, even for an art amateur like myself!

    1. Thank you, Albert! The people connected with Kenwood’s history were as interesting as the place itself.

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