After a £6 million, 18-month restoration project you might expect the recently reopened Kenwood House to be a place transformed. If so, you may be a little disappointed, because this much-loved mansion in north London remains reassuringly similar to the way it was, with few changes to the room arrangement and many of the paintings re-hung in their familiar locations. Although there are some important enhancements, they are understated – ‘sympathetic’ in heritage-speak – rather than a radical overhaul. But this is what we look for in our stately homes: a sense of permanence and slow accretion over time, even when we know this to be a modern fabrication, as is the case with Kenwood.
That Kenwood exists at all today is down to an extraordinary philanthropic gesture of one man, Edward Cecil Guinness, Earl of Iveagh and heir to the Guinness brewing business. He bought the house in 1925 to save it from demolition, and to provide a public home for his outstanding collection of paintings. He then gifted both the house and collection to the nation on his death in 1927. Together they are known as the Iveagh Bequest. Although the house is important in its own right, it has played second fiddle to the collection, and until now has been treated more like an art gallery than a historic house. This is understandable, given the exceptional quality of the 63 paintings Lord Iveagh left to the nation, which include two of the finest works in public ownership in Britain: Self Portrait with Two Circles by Rembrandt and The Guitar Player by Vermeer.
One of the aims of the restoration project has been to make Kenwood more like a home again, by recreating the domestic setting that might have existed when it was owned by the celebrated 18th-century lawyer, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. Mansfield commissioned the Scottish architect Robert Adam to remodel the house in the neoclassical style between 1764 and 1779.
The restoration has focused on the careful reinstatement of a suite of Adam-designed rooms, including Mansfield’s library, or ‘Great Room’, one of the finest surviving Adam interiors in the UK. Recreating this room ‘as Adam would have intended’ has involved the recovery of the original colour scheme of pale blues and pinks, and removal of later gilding, in order to bring out the splendour and elegance of the white decorative plasterwork. Brought back to its full glory, the Great Room is now a work of art in its own right, on a par with any of the pictures in the collection.
To maintain the aesthetic purity of the Adam interiors, a clearer segregation has been introduced between these spaces and the parts of the house hung with Iveagh’s paintings. A series of rooms have been redecorated and furnished in 18th century style to showcase works from the British collection, which includes a number of important portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney. The intention here is to make the house feel more welcoming, less like a public institution and more like a Georgian gentleman’s private gallery. It says something about our changing attitudes towards civic space that an environment redolent of patrician privilege is considered to be friendlier and more accessible than one that looks like a public museum.
What else has the £6 million been spent on? Some of it has gone towards repairing the roof – essential but unspectacular work. Another portion of the budget will go towards education, outreach and volunteering programmes, to connect Kenwood with wider audiences and to ensure the next generation of north Londoners learns to love this remarkable house.
Conservation and accessibility are key priorities for English Heritage, the government-controlled body that manages Kenwood House, alongside more than 400 other historic buildings and ancient monuments across the country. 10 days after Kenwood reopened the government announced a public consultation on plans to make English Heritage an independent charity, and to cut it free from public subsidy over an eight-year timeframe. There are no guarantees this proposed governance model will be successful, because it depends on the charity raising over £80 million from private sources to bridge a funding shortfall.
Within these calculations, Kenwood House will be a liability, because it is one of the properties with free entry (a condition of the Iveagh bequest) that will need to be subsidised by other, more lucrative, sites in the English Heritage portfolio. I wonder whether Lord Iveagh would have been so generous in his gift if he had known the limits of government support for the national heritage collection.
Kenwood House is in Hampstead, North London.