Set in splendid grounds beside Hampstead Heath, this outstanding neoclassical house holds one of the most important collections of paintings ever given to the nation. Works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough all hang against a backdrop of sumptuous rooms.The house also contains paintings from the Suffolk Collection, with magnificent full-length portraits by William Larkin and Royal Stuart images by Van Dyck and Lely.
The house was remodelled by Robert Adam from 1764 to 1779, when he transformed the original brick building into a majestic villa for the great judge, Lord Mansfield. The richly decorated library is one of his masterpieces and a feast for the eyes.
Later Earls of Mansfield redesigned the parkland and Kenwood remained in the family until 1925. When developers tried to buy the estate, the house and grounds were saved by a brewing magnate, the first Earl of Iveagh. In 1927, when the Earl died, he bequeathed the Kenwood Estate and part of his collection of pictures to the nation. „
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I think that Kenwood House is a wonderful place to visit, if for no reason other than the fact that its an excuse to visit Hampstead Heath which is one of the best London parks (in one of London's most affluent regions). Its not one of the bigger English Heritage sites but its still a truly impressive building that contains many objects of interest.
One of the best parts of Kenwood House is the elaborately decorated library full of beautiful old books. Other highlights include the cabinets of jewellery and a series of paintings by famous artists including Turner and Vermeer.
If you're still not tempted to visit Kenwood House, I should mention the thing that first attracted me to visit which is that its completely free. Well, they recommend a donation, and after visiting you will probably feel compelled to give a some money but this is totally optional. Free English Heritage sites in London are few and far between and rarely this impressive.
In summary, its definitely worth a visit especially considering the fact that it won't cost you a penny. Its a good alternative to the bigger Heritage tourist attractions.
Here we were with a day to kill in the London area. It is just after 9.30, the outside temperature is already 23deg.C and it is 16th August, the children are still very much on holiday. We are not wanting to drive too far, in a Honda Chiswick loan car, a very glassy Honda Jazz 1.2, has no air conditioning, also our "out and about" budget had been fully used up earlier in the summer showing my Polish in laws around, not least during the exorbitantly expensive visit to Windsor Castle that you have all been so kind to comment on!
What is there to do then in London, to put it crudely, that is cheap? Well, we do have our English Heritage cards and guide book with us. Roughly drawing a line north to south through the centre of London AND avoiding the congestion charging zone, we are left with a choice of four properties to visit in the western half. A couple of these we had previously visited, the other, Coombe Conduit in Kingston, did not really look like a full day out, so, by default Kenwood House rather chose itself, apart from that my wife had liked the look of the house pictured in the guide book!
We had no trouble at all at this time of day working our way around he old "North Circular" route, admiring the new Wembley Stadium construction site on the way. Situated in Hampstead and adjacent to Hampstead Heath, Kenwood turned out to be just 13 miles from our starting point. This is part of London that we do not know at all and I was really surprised at just how affluent it is here, we travelled up to Kenwood off the A1 past huge gated mansions.
As directed by the brown English Heritage road signs we entered the car park twenty minutes before the house opened at 11.00a.m. There was not one single space to be found, for what turned out to be a large site, the car parking here is woefully inadequate. We were lucky, driving round and round the car park eventually a dog walker arrived and vacated a space. Tiny as it is, the car park is very shady so at least the car interior stayed cool on this hot day.
All around the 112 acre site there are very good maps showing where you are, we located ourselves in the car park and enjoyed a lovely walk through the woods until the side of Kenwood House came into view. Rather than being first into the house when it opened, we decided to start our visit with a leisurely stroll through the grounds, starting with some photography of the house from the lake and the lake itself of course. Staggering was the sheer number of artists laying or sitting on the lawns drawing the lake and beautiful woods beyond. We stood beside a lady with a toddler, feeding the ducks and a couple of swans on the lake, we were all watching the antics of a large rat chasing the ducks along the bank!
This is a truly dreamy location; it is not hard to see just why it is so popular with film makers. If standing here you are experiencing a sense of deja-vu do not worry, it will be because you have seen this very same scene in Notting Hill, Mansfield Park or 101 Dalmatians!
The original estate and much smaller house here date from 1616 when John Bull, later to be the King's Printer, purchased it. The main central part of the house was built around 1700 and during the 1760's was extensively re-modelled by Robert Adam. During this period Kenwood was owned by William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield (Mansfield Park?!) who was to become Lord Chief Justice. When built the house would have appeared much more prominent on the landscape than it does today, all of this land was heathland and there were unobstructed views right across the centre of London. St Paul's Cathedral is only just over three miles from here and would have been admired from the terrace by Mansfield and his many guests at Kenwood.
For the equally delightful rural setting, which we can all now enjoy at Kenwood, we have Humphrey Repton, famous landscape artist, to thank. He was employed by the second Earl of Mansfield to entirely re-model the grounds.
Kenwood is something of a novelty, even by English Heritage standards, in that admission is entirely free of charge. For that we thank its very last private owner, who died after only two years here in 1927 - Edward Cecil Guinness, First Earl of Iveagh. If you brewed rather than spent all your money drinking Guinness, then this is the lifestyle that you would have been able to enjoy! The house, estate and the vast majority of the priceless collections contained within the house have been left to the nation, by wealthy collectors for us all to enjoy.
After our recent experience at Windsor Castle I can only comment that I find their generosity in leaving such fascinating and priceless assets to the nation all the more admirable. What is more, the NATION did not pay for any of these assets in the first place!
Much of the fine art was collected by Kenwood's last owner, although regrettably he died before having the chance to hang his masterpieces in the house. His collection has been much added to as similar bequests have been made during the last 78 years. The house and grounds are now cared for by English Heritage who, whilst not always getting it right everywhere, are certainly doing a fine job at this property.
This is not a "dead" museum piece, oh no. There are many money raising events held here throughought the year, especially in the summer. The Kenwood prom concerts draw big name artists and have become something of a part of London social life in recent years. The stage is unusual in that it is situated on the far side of the lake, with a backdrop of trees. The lawns dropping away in front of the house and rising to each side form a natural amphitheatre.
Strolling in the grounds at Kenwood is a totally relaxing experience, all the more so due to the fact that you are well in towards the centre of the nation's largest metropolis. With a notable lack of traffic noise, only inbound flights to Heathrow Airport alert you to the fact that you are indeed close to the City.
Finally, we entered the house through the orangary at the front off the terrace facing the lake. At this point a very well informed English Heritage staff member welcomed us, inviting us to take part in a 20 minute "spotlight tour" at 3.00p.m 'if we were still around at that time'. She also talked us through the route around the house. Our first stop was in the lovely little gift shop in order to purchase a guide book. £3.50 very well spent in this case. As English Heritage members we could have had a free audio guide (next time). If you are not a member a small charge (£2.25 I think) is probably reasonable - bearing in mind that you have paid no admission charge. Usually we buy a guide book before starting a tour, carry it around with us (cursing because there is nowhere to put it!) and then read it at home in the evening. At Kenwood that was very definitely not the case, we had our £3.50 worth by the time we left the house
..We return to start our tour of the house in the beautiful entrance hall. Decorated in just my favourite hues, pale Wedgwood blue with white cornicing and window shutters, the room is a cool haven on this hot day. For the wonderful proportions of this not terribly large room we can thank Robert Adam. Not for the circular ceiling painting to which your eyes are inescapably drawn, that little gem, portraying the Greek Gods Baccus and Ceres (wine and agriculture) was painted by Antonio Zucchi.
What I have failed to mention so far is that Kenwood House is classified as a "suburban villa", rather than a grand country house in the style of somewhere like Chatsworth for instance. This explains its rather more modestly proportioned rooms. Personally I find houses such as Kenwood far more friendly, less intimidating than the huge country piles which I, the man in the street, have trouble connecting with.
From the hall we proceed along a fairly narrow passageway, past the Great Stairs, by period standards actually quite a modest stair case. This is a rather dark area, lit only by a glass skylight at the top of the house over the staircase. This came about when in 1793 the north wing was added necessitating the removal of an outside window here.
We enter another quite simple but beautiful room, termed the Ante Chamber because it leads to the main reception room - the "Great Room" or Library. Both are stunning visually and decorated to just my taste. The cool cream and white of the Ante Chamber does nothing to prepare you for the outstanding blue, white, gold and red extravagance of the Great Room. This is a dual purpose room in that it was the main reception room, but also built into its half circular ends are library shelves stacked with a priceless collection of books. Apparently the first Earl did not collect paintings, he was a bibliophile and this is where he kept his collection - proudly displayed for his guests to admire.
Trying to describe this stunningly attractive room to you is not easy, a picture being worth a thousand words have a look at the one Ciao inserted at the top of this review and make up your own mind, see if you agree with me that this is simply THE most beautiful room. Undoubtedly this is the highlight of any visit to Kenwood, in my humble opinion probably the finest room that I have seen in any of the very many country houses which we have been fortunate enough to visit during the last four years.
And so I suppose it should be, for it took the master Robert Adam three years (1767-70) to complete. Being a slow decorator, I wish that our lounge could look like this after I had spent three years working on it!
The remainder of the house, at least the rooms open to the public, is given over to various collections of art. The decorations and furniture have been designed, purchased and placed in such a way so as to show these "old masters" to their very best advantage. English Heritage have done an absolutely superb job of this, my wife and I are by no means art connoisseurs, but we thoroughly enjoyed admiring all of the artwork displayed here - there was not one piece notably out of place, nor was there one single painting that elicited the comment "don't like that!". Again a total contrast to our experience at Windsor Castle.
You are looking at original masterpieces here. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds are all strongly represented. Adrianna's favourite amongst them all was a Rembrandt self portrait hanging in the dining room "it is just so full of life" she commented.
My favourite? Well, I have to say that of all these great artists probably I liked the Reynolds paintings best of all. For me they shone out, even in this magnificent collection. If I can pick a room, rather than a painting, it would have to be the music room. Here you stand surrounded in beautiful women from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, magnificently portrayed by the most famous artists, probably of ANY time!
Having made an early start that particular morning, by 1.00p.m we were in need of lunch. Here at Kenwood you are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing somewhere to eat. An outdoor café, a traditional tea room - situated on the house's main "old kitchen" and a very good restaurant, the Brew House Café situated in the converted stables, offering both indoor and outdoor dining options. There are also incidentally superbly clean toilets located here.
Incidentally, having mentioned car parking at the start, I would note here that if you are disabled the staff at Kenwood will let you use reserved disabled parking spaces adjacent to the cafes, which are attached to the main house. The ground floor of the house is accessable for wheel chair users, but there is no lift. There are only four rooms upstairs but the best of what is on offer is located on the ground floor!
For our lunch we chose the Brew House Café, and elected to sit outside on an elevated platform next to the Garden Shop. The home cooked menu is changed daily and this is one of the few places in London where we have experienced service with a smile! People obviously come here from the surrounding area at lunchtime just to eat the food. It might not be exactly be cheap but it was superb, the atmosphere even better, a peaceful haven right here in London in which to eat in style.
This really sums up Kenwood in a nut-shell. A place in London so full of atmosphere and charm - not to mention the Reynolds - that we look forward to returning here at the earliest opportunity.
Yes we liked Kenwood very much, the house, the paintings, the grounds, even the food served here was of the best quality. We will undoubtedly be bringing friends and family back here, probably with a picnic next time too!
Adrianna, my wife, was so moved by the place that she sent a text message to her father in Poland - there and then - to say how beautiful Kenwood is and that we would bring them here when they next come to England.
I can think of no finer recommendation than that!
Opening Times. Every day apart from 25th & 26th December and 1st January.
1st April to 31st October 11.00 - 17.00
1st November to 31st March 11.00 - 16.00