An exterior view of English Heritage's Kenwood House on the northern edge of Hampstead HeathPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The refurbishment of Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath is complete and its treasures are once again on show to the public. Nicholas Lezard in praise of a stately pile we all own
The Guardian, Friday 13 December 2013 / http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/13/kenwood-house-restoration-greatest-art-collection
Kenwood House, a classically styled Georgian villa perched on top of a hill on the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, commanding a spectacular view over the City of London, might have ceased to be in the early years of the 20th century. In the place of the top-of-the-milk-coloured pile, freely available to all to wander through, there'd be the kind of proto-McMansions you see on the opposite side of Hampstead Lane, no access to the grounds, and the open space of Hampstead Heath would be many acres smaller.
There's been a house on the location since the early 17th century, but the form it now takes largely dates from the mid to late 18th century. It's a familiar landmark to north Londoners who like pottering around the Heath at weekends; familiar, you might say, almost to the point of invisibility, and as a child I thought no more of it than that there was a smooth hill down which you could roll almost to the lake at the bottom.
But the house, and the grounds, might all have been sold, parcelled up into building plots in the early years of the 20th century. The sixth Earl of Mansfield had had one of those fits of pique and panic that affected the aristocracy and the gentry with the introduction of death duties, and decided to sell off the lot. By then, Kenwood House had been let to a series of tenants: Grand Duke Michael, Tsar Nicholas II's cousin, lived there until a sudden reversal of his family's fortunes in 1917 obliged him to leave early; the last sitting tenant was the millionaire widow of an American tin‑plate manufacturer.
It is hard, from a contemporary view of the super-rich, for us to understand what could possibly have motivated the Earl of Iveagh, Edward Cecil Guinness, great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, to buy the house from the Earl of Mansfield, fill it with one of the most valuable art collections in the country, and then leave it for the free use of the public after his death. But then philanthropy had always been a Guinness tradition; the Guinnesses looked after their workers, and Edward Cecil – who bought out his two older brothers and then multiplied the Guinness fortunes five-fold – became the first Earl of Iveagh not just because he was so rich but because he had spent about a million pounds in 19th‑century money clearing slums and putting the poor into decent houses. You don't imagine that kind of thing happening much now. And philanthropy is an integral part of Kenwood's tradition: the first Earl of Mansfield, Kenwood's first significant owner, was responsible for a landmark judgment in 1772 that was a step towards the abolition of slavery; he also had a half-black great-niece, Dido Belle, whose freedom he carefully emphasised in his will. (You will see a reproduction of a portrait of her at Kenwood with her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, in which she smilingly touches her cheek just in case you had missed the fact of her skin colour.)
For the last year or so, though, Kenwood House has been closed and under scaffolding: its slates cracked, its facade peeling. It had to be patched up before things got any worse. But what is interesting is the way it has been done: the restoration meant chipping through the layers of paint and gilt accumulated over centuries, and bringing back the house as it would have looked to the first earl. The surprise begins before you even enter: the creamy facade is now a more austere sandstone (or, rather, sandstone effect).
The idea is to make visitors feel that they are entering a home, and not a property from which yards of velvet ropes politely, but unambiguously, exclude them. We are to experience the place as the gentlemen and women of the 18th century would have; which was one of the ideals expressed in Lord Iveagh's bequest. A fire burns in the grate at the entrance. A welcoming hearth, what could be more homely? On closer inspection, though, you will notice it is fuelled by gas.
We have an odd relationship with the stately pile. Almost every other time you read a PG Wodehouse novel, you're in a country house; and if you don't read Wodehouse, then there's a fair chance you've watched Downton Abbey. These are deeply familiar places to us. And yet, at the same time, we are excluded, unless we mix in these circles; and we tend not to.
Kenwood's collection of old masters is the largest single private-to-public bequest of all time, but still, to walk through the place is to succumb to a cumulative version of Stendhal syndrome, where one becomes physically overwhelmed in the presence of Great Art. You might think this is a bit of romantic nonsense, but wait until you go into the library, having already been softened up in the corridor by Turner's A Coast Scene with Fishermen Hauling a Boat Ashore, and turn to your right and see Rembrandt's greatest self-portrait – imperious, indomitable, the brushstrokes so confident in places that they look almost contemptuous. And it's not as if everything after that is an anticlimax. Take in, for instance, Gainsborough's Portrait of Mary, Countess Howe – a strikingly contemporary beauty, with nothing rococo or stylised about her features. (As it happens, the most popular painting throughout Kenwood's later history has been Joseph Wright's Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight, an image that can only be salvaged from extreme kitsch by acknowledging it as a very creepy metaphor for nascent sexual cruelty.) You cannot move, then, for Landseers, Gainsboroughs, Van Dycks, Guardis, Reynoldses, Van de Veldes. There's a Vermeer, for goodness sake, The Guitar Player, insouciantly displayed, in a setting whose ambience is far removed from that of the museum. Here, the art is in a space both private and public, as if art's two desires – to be kept in private, and to be seen by many – have been granted at once.
It is of a parcel with the restoration's intent to restore authenticity. An obsessiveness about tracking down period-era benches is precisely what is needed for such work to have authority, and the idea of scraping through the layers of paint to find out what originally was intended is both symbolic and practical. What it feels like to be wandering around the place almost as if you owned it, and owned it in 1770-odd, is down to the individual. What are we, equals or inferiors? Is this place, are these places, theirs, or ours?
Thinking about the Rembrandt later, I was reminded of the moment in one of John Fowles's novels, where the painting is described as being "uncomfortable in its eighteenth-century drawing room, telling a truth such decors had been evolved to exclude". Well, yes, if you want to be harsh. There was always something a little bogus or even sinister about the piles of the wealthy, for those who cared to look for it – the dairies that would be built to one side so that ladies could play at being milkmaids (Kenwood has one, and it wouldn't take too much to make it functional again). Here, the very name "Mansfield" will have set off a train of association in anyone who remembers the source (slavery) of the family fortune in Austen's Mansfield Park. That the real‑life Mansfields can have clear consciences with regards to this is one of the things that makes a visit to Kenwood a spotlessly pleasing experience, and the terms of the Iveagh bequest are ones that the current custodians of our culture would do well to emulate.
Through a gap in the trees, you can see, in the misty distance, the City, with its gherkin, towers, monuments to capitalist excess, and all (tellingly, the view of St Paul's from the house has been blocked). You can look down on it. As if it is art, and you own it.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS by The Guardian / http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/gallery/2013/nov/26/kenwood-house-restoration-in-pictures
The library at Kenwood HousePhotograph: Steve Parsons/PA
English Heritage curator Laura Houliston, replaces books in the libraryPhotograph: Steve Parsons/PA
Wendy Richardson, a member of the conservation team, cleans the gilded surround of a mirrorPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The decorated ceiling in the libraryPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The decorated ceiling in the libraryPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Dee Alston, a member of the conservation team, cleans a bust in the entrance hall
Johannes Vermeer's 'The Guitar Player', centre, in the dining roomPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Johannes Vermeer's 'The Guitar Player', centre, in the dining roomPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Cleaning the bust of Lord Mansfield in the libraryPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The decorated ceiling in the entrance hallPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Laura Houliston, a curator of collections for English Heritage, admires the paintings in the dining roomPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
An exterior view of the house from the front courtyard on the northern edge of Hampstead HeathPhotograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Robert Adam (3 July 1728 – 3 March 1792) was a Scottish neoclassical architect, interior designer and furniture designer. He was the son of William Adam (1689–1748), the country's foremost architect of the time, and trained under him. With his older brother John, Robert took on the family business, which included lucrative work for the Board of Ordnance, after William's death.
In 1754 he left for Rome, spending nearly five years on the continent studying architecture under Charles-Louis Clérisseau and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. On his return to Britain he established a practice in London, where he was joined by his younger brother James. Here he developed the "Adam Style", and his theory of "movement" in architecture, based on his studies of antiquity and became one of the most successful and fashionable architects in the country. Adam held the post of Architect of the King's Works from 1761 to 1769.
Robert Adam was a leader of the first phase of the classical revival in England and Scotland from around 1760 until his death. He influenced the development of Western architecture, both in Europe and in North America. Adam designed interiors and fittings as well as houses.
He served as the member of Parliament for Kinross-shire (1768–74).
Adam was born on the 3 July 1728 at Gladney House in Kirkcaldy, Fife, although the family moved to Edinburgh later that same year. As a child he was noted as having a "feeble constitution". From 1734 at the age of six Adam attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh where he learned Latin (from the second year lessons were conducted in Latin) until he was fifteen, he was taught to read works by Virgil, Horace, Sallust and parts of Cicero and in his final year Livy. In autumn 1743 he matriculated at Edinburgh University, and compulsory classes for all students were: the Greek language, logic, metaphysics and Natural philosophy. Students could choose three elective subjects, Adam attended classes in mathematics, taught by Colin Maclaurin, and anatomy, taught by Alexander Monro primus. His studies were interrupted by the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Highlanders, who occupied Edinburgh during the 1745 Jacobite rising. At the end of the year, Robert fell seriously ill for some months, and it seems unlikely that he returned to university, having completed only two years of study.
On his recovery from illness in 1746, he joined his elder brother John as apprentice to his father. He assisted William Adam on projects such as the building of Inveraray Castle and the continuing extensions of Hopetoun House. William's position as Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance also began to generate much work, as the Highlands were fortified following the failed Jacobite revolt. Robert's early ambition was to be an artist rather than architect, and the style of his early sketches in the manner of Salvator Rosa are reflected in his earliest surviving architectural drawings, which show picturesque gothic follies. William Adam died in June 1748, and left Dowhill, a part of the Blair Adam estate which included a tower house, to Robert.
On William Adam's death, John Adam inherited both the family business and the position of Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance. He immediately took Robert into partnership, later to be joined by James Adam. The Adam Brothers' first major commission was the decoration of the grand state apartments on the first floor at Hopetoun House, followed by their first "new build" at Dumfries House. For the Board of Ordnance, the brothers were the main contractor at Fort George, a large modern fort near Inverness designed by military engineer Colonel Skinner. Visits to this project, begun in 1750, would occupy the brothers every summer for the next ten years, and, along with works at many other barracks and forts, provided Robert with a solid foundation in practical building.
In the winter of 1749–1750, Adam travelled to London with his friend, the poet John Home. He took the opportunity for architectural study, visiting Wilton, designed by Inigo Jones, and the Queens Hermitage in Richmond by Roger Morris. His sketchbook of the trip also shows a continuing interest in gothic architecture.
Among his friends at Edinburgh were the philosophers Adam Ferguson and David Hume and the artist Paul Sandby whom he met in the Highlands. Other Edinburgh acquaintances included Gilbert Elliot, William Wilkie, John Home and Alexander Wedderburn.
On 3 October 1754, Robert Adam in the company of his brother James (who went as far as Brussels) set off from Edinburgh for his Grand Tour, stopping for a few days in London, where they visited the Mansion House, London, St Stephen Walbrook, St Paul's Cathedral, Windsor, Berkshire, in the company of Thomas Sandby who showed them his landscaping at Windsor Great Park and Virginia Water Lake. They sailed from Dover arriving in Calais on28 October 1754. He joined Charles Hope-Weir, brother of the Earl of Hopetoun in Brussels and together they travelled to Rome. Hope agreed to take Adam on the tour at the suggestion of his uncle, the Marquess of Annandale, who had undertaken the Grand Tour himself. While in Brussels the pair attended a Play and Masquerade, as well as visiting churches and palaces in the city. Travelling on to Tournai, then Lille, where they visited the Citadal designed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. By the 12 November 1754 Adam and Hope were in Paris where they took lodgings in Hotel de Notre Dame.
Adam and Hope travelled on to Italy together, before falling out in Rome over travelling expenses and accommodation. Robert Adam stayed on in Rome until 1757, studying classical architecture and honing his drawing skills. His tutors included the French architect and artist Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Here, he became acquainted with the work of the pioneering classical archaeologist and art historian, theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. On his return journey, Adam and Clerisseau spent time intensively studying the ruins of Diocletian's Palace at Spalato in Dalmatia (now known as Split, in modern Croatia). These studies were later published as Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia in 1764.
He returned to Great Britain in 1758 and set up in business in London with his brother James Adam. They focused on designing complete schemes for the decoration and furnishing of houses. Palladian design was popular, and Robert designed a number of country houses in this style, but Robert evolved a new, more flexible style incorporating elements of classical Roman design alongside influences from Greek, Byzantine and Baroque styles. The Adam brothers' success can also be attributed to a desire to design everything down to the smallest detail, ensuring a sense of unity in their design.
Adam was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1758 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, the same year he was appointed Architect of the King’s Works (jointly with Sir William Chambers). His younger brother James succeeded him in this post when he relinquished the role in
1768 in order to devote
more time to his elected office as member of Parliament for Kinross-shire.
Robert Adam rejected the Palladian style, as introduced to England by Inigo Jones, and advocated by Lord Burlington, as "ponderous" and "disgustful". However, he continued their tradition of drawing inspiration directly from classical antiquity, during his four-year stay in Europe. Through the adoption of classical motifs, Adam developed a new style of architectural decoration.
The Adam brothers' principle of "movement" was largely Robert's conception, although the theory was first written down by James. "Movement" relied on dramatic contrasts and diversity of form, and drew on the picturesque aesthetic. The first volume of the Adam brother's Works (1773) cited Kedleston Hall, designed by Robert in 1761, as an outstanding example of movement in architecture.
By contrasting room sizes and decorative schemes, Adam applied the concept of movement to his interiors also. His style of decoration, described by Pevsner as "Classical Rococo", drew on Roman "grotesque" stucco decoration.
Robert Adam's work had influenced the direction of architecture across the western world. In North America, the Federal style owes much to neoclassicism as practised by Adam. In Europe, Adam notably influenced Charles Cameron, the Scotsman who designed Tsarskoye Selo and other Russian palaces for Catherine the Great. However, by the time of his death, Adam's neoclassicism was being superseded in Britain by a more severe, Greek phase of the classical revival, as practiced by James "Athenian" Stuart. The Adam brothers employed several draughtsmen who would go on to establish themselves as architects, including George Richardson, and the Italian Joseph Bonomi, who Robert originally hired in Rome.
During their lifetime Robert and James Adam published two volumes of their designs, Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (in 1773-1778 and 1779; a third volume was published posthumously, in 1822).
Adam had long suffered from stomach and bowel problems, probably caused by a peptic ulcer and irritable bowel syndrome. While at home - 11 Albermarle Street, London - on 1 March 1792, one of the ulcers burst, and on 3 March Adam died.
The funeral was held on 10 March; he was buried in the south aisle of Westminster Abbey. The pall-bearers were several of his clients: Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch; George Coventry, 6th Earl of Coventry; James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale; David Murray, 2nd Earl of Mansfield; Lord Frederick Campbell and Sir William Pulteney, 5th Baronet.
Knowing he was dying, he drafted his will on 2 March 1792. Having never married, Adam left his estate to his sisters Elizabeth Adam and Margaret Adam.
His obituary appeared in the March 1792 edition of The Gentleman's Magazine:
It is somewhat remarkable that the Arts should be deprived at the same time of two of their greatest ornaments, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Adam: and it is difficult to say which of them excelled most in his particular profession... Mr Adam produced a total change in the architecture of this country: and his fertile genius in elegant ornament was not confined to the decoration of buildings, but has been diffused to every branch of manufacture. His talents extend beyond the lie of his own profession: he displayed in his numerous drawings in landscape a luxuriance of composition, and an effect of light and shadow, which have scarcely been equalled...to the last period of his life, Mr Adam displayed an increasing vigour of genius and refinement of taste: for in the space of one year preceeding his death, he designed eight great public works, besides twenty five private buildings, so various in their style, and so beautiful in their composition, that they have been allowed by the best judges, sufficient of themselves, to establish his fame unrivalled as an artist.
He left nearly 9,000 drawings, 8,856 of which (by both Robert and James Adam) were subsequently purchased in 1821 for £200 by the architect John Soane and are now at the Soane Museum in London.