History of Kenwood
Kenwood House, on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath, was probably first built in the early 17th century. Between 1764 and 1779 Robert Adam transformed it into a neoclassical villa for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and the interiors include some of Adam’s finest surviving schemes. Kenwood is now home to the 1st Earl of Iveagh’s renowned collection of Old Master and British paintings, which includes works by Rembrandt and Vermeer.
The 17th-century House
The first house on the site was probably a brick structure built by John Bill, King James I’s printer, who bought the estate in 1616. His son and grandson owned it until 1690, when it was sold to Brook Bridges for £3,400.
The house, which was already substantial (24 hearths were recorded in the 1665 Hearth Tax assessment), was significantly modified in about 1700, possibly by Brook Bridges’s son, William, who owned Kenwood from 1694 to 1705. The new house was a two-storey red brick building with stone quoins, large sash windows, a hipped roof and a projecting central section with a triangular pediment.
Home of Lord Mansfield
In 1754 William Murray (1705–93), from 1756 1st Earl of Mansfield, acquired Kenwood for £4,000. He and his wife, Elizabeth (Betty), née Finch (1704–84), used it as their weekend country villa. Lord Mansfield expanded the estate, and soon swept away Bute’s formal gardens. Some of the fishponds were merged to become Wood Pond and the Thousand Pound Pond was created, its name presumably reflecting the exorbitant cost of its creation.
Lady Mansfield wrote to her nephew in May 1757:
Kenwood is now in great beauty. Your uncle is passionately fond of it. We go thither every Saturday and return on Mondays but I live in hopes we shall now soon go thither to fix for the Summer.
The couple were childless, but from about 1766 they agreed to accommodate their niece, Anne Murray, and two great-nieces, Elizabeth Murray and ‘Dido’ Elizabeth Belle.
The decision to house the girls permanently at Kenwood, combined with Mansfield’s increasing status and wealth as Lord Chief Justice, encouraged him to commission the Scottish neoclassical architect Robert Adam and his brother James to remodel the house from 1764 to 1779.
Kenwood after Robert Adam
In 1793 Mansfield’s nephew, David Murray, Viscount Stormont (1727–96), succeeded to the earldom and quickly began to make significant changes. His first step was to have a new road built, diverting Hampstead Lane away from the forecourt, to provide the house with more privacy.
Soon afterwards the 2nd Earl commissioned the little-known architect George Saunders to build the north-east and north-west wings, providing Kenwood with an elegant dining room and music room. Saunders also added a service wing with kitchens, bedrooms, a brewhouse and a laundry, partially hidden behind the north-east wing. At the same time the 2nd Earl built new gate lodges, a new farm and stables, and a dairy, which was designed by Saunders for Louisa, 2nd Countess of Mansfield.
The 2nd Earl also employed the celebrated landscape gardener Humphry Repton to remodel the grounds at Kenwood. Repton created a series of meandering paths around the estate to show off all its aspects to their best advantage. He broke up the wide sweeping views in the parkland by planting groves of trees for variety and contrast. A walled forecourt was removed, creating a Half Moon Lawn in front of the house to show off its elegant frontage. He also converted the kitchen garden to the west of the house into an intricate flower garden. The gardens and parkland known to Repton and his patron survive in large part today.
Kenwood from the 20th Century
The 6th Earl of Mansfield, Alan David Murray (1864–1935), inherited Kenwood from his brother in 1906, but decided to sell it in 1914. From 1909 it had been rented out to tenants, including Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch (1861–1929), second cousin to the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family, who lived there until 1917. They were followed by the American millionairess Nancy Leeds, who moved out when she married Prince Christopher of Greece in 1920.
In November 1922 Lord Mansfield sold off the contents of the house, including some of the original furnishings, in a four-day sale. By 1925, however, Kenwood’s future was secured when Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927), bought the house and 74 acres immediately surrounding it. The Kenwood Preservation Council purchased land including the ponds and ‘Ken Wood’, and vested it in London County Council.
The Iveagh Bequest Act of 1929 stipulated that Kenwood should be open free of charge to the public with the ‘mansion and its contents … preserved as a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century’, including the display of 63 of Lord Iveagh’s outstanding collection of Old Master and British paintings.