Kenwood House: 91 years on

It is surprisingly easy, cliché though it sounds, to get lost in Hampstead Heath, that large, hilly, and famously wild park in north London. And if you get just lost enough at just the right spot, you might not only forget where you are but also when you are. That is what Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, seems to have wanted when he left Kenwood, a large estate at the northern edge of the Heath, including a neoclassical mansion filled with a careful selection of 63 master paintings, to the nation upon his death in 1927. The Iveagh Bequest mandates that the collection be “preserved as a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century” and so it has. The handful of later 19th century canvases are vastly outnumbered and overshadowed by 18th and 17th century works, which is where the collection’s real strength lies. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Snyders team with Boucher, Batoni, Gainsborough and Lawrence—to say nothing of the sixteen, yes sixteen, paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds—to populate Kenwood with captivating historical personalities.

Kenwood House, view from Hampstead Heath from the South. Facade by Robert and James Adam, ca 1765.

Combined with its well-preserved period architecture, re-designed between 1764 and 1779 by none other than Robert Adam, the house is a virtual time capsule, one that generally facilitates what might be called historical re-experience. Kenwood’s magnificence, however, also masks a sleight of hand. No matter how historically exact its collection is, as an assemblage Kenwood belies Iveagh’s own early 20th century position and unabashed nostalgia. Kenwood is not fiction, but it is not pure fact either. This historical wrinkle aside, the collection’s enduring promise has understandably attracted many visitors over the years, visitors who inevitably confront, sometimes innocently and sometimes quite seriously, a glimpse of the 18th century world that Iveagh aimed to recreate. One of those visitors, we can almost certainly say, was the Warburg Institute’s Edgar Wind.

Wind at Kenwood

“Wenn man so viele Gainsboroughs und Reynolds und Lawrences in einem Raum beisammen sieht, daneben auch noch die Porzellan- und Emailarbeiten, so gewinnt man Eindrücke und erhält Möglichkeiten der Vergleichung.“ So Wind wrote in a letter to Fritz Saxl retrospectively dated to early 1931 and held in the Warburg Institute Archive. Though Wind does not name Kenwood in the letter and did visit other London museums during this trip, it seems impossible that he was not tempted by the Hampstead house, which had just recently opened to public acclaim and which matches Wind’s description as well, if not better, than any other London collection. Later that year Wind even wrote directly to the Iveagh Bequest for photographs of specific paintings by the same painters he noted to Saxl: Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Lawrence. Determining Wind‘s possible visit to Kenwood is far from trivial as it is plain from the above-quoted letter that Wind’s experience on his 1931 London trip played a significant role in the development of his now classic essay, “Humanitätsidee und heroisiertes Porträt in der englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts.” Moreover and more interestingly, even if we grant that Wind’s own historical experience on that trip cannot be recreated in totality, the time capsule of Kenwood offers a tantalizing possibility: that we too might re-experience “impressions” quite similar to, if not converging with, those of Wind himself.

Thomas Gainsborough, Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting, 1783, oil on canvas, Kenwood House. Photo: Historic England Archive.

Fittingly enough, the original guidebook of the collection is held in the Warburg library and it records the collection by painting and room. Stepping through the front door, the booklet allows you to check the original organization of the collection against its arrangement today. Such a task certainly distracts from a more natural museum experience; however, my comparative work also revealed that almost all of the house’s rooms still contain at least one painting that was originally displayed there when the collection opened in 1928. Though most, if not all, of the paintings have been rearranged over the years and some of the rooms even repurposed, one aspect of the collection still clearly transcends these changes: its disproportionate focus on 18th century portraits of children, young girls, and women. This aspect of Kenwood is unavoidable and it has been interpreted in ways that are understandably unflattering to Iveagh; the catalog calls the collection a “virtual harem.” Yet its proximate causes in Iveagh’s personal psychology, however stereotypical or idiosyncratic, are less interesting to me than its possible effects; Wind’s essay is also fundamentally structured around similar categorization. Thankfully Wind added sections discussing portraits of military and professional men, portraits of actors, and self-portraits of Gainsborough and Reynolds to his essay, thereby discarding the evidently sexualizing and infantilizing impulses of Iveagh’s collection from his own work. This welcome difference aside, the partial parallel between the categorization of Kenwood’s canonical collection and Wind’s canonical essay still stands and makes one wonder about other possible connections between the two.

Abiding analogies

One such connection is the famed rivalry between Reynolds and Gainsborough, which plays a fundamental role in Wind’s essay and which Kenwood dramatizes in quite striking terms. There are far more paintings by these two giants of 18th century portraiture in the Iveagh Bequest than by any other two artists; together their 24 works at Kenwood compose more than a third of the original collection. Some rooms are entirely dominated by their warring styles. Moreover, the painting that Iveagh paid the most for and that was long considered the jewel of his collection has often been casually read as an allegory of the competition between the two painters: Gainsborough’s Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting. If Wind hardly needed to see this painting or visit Kenwood to learn about the legendary rivalry, it is important to note that his essay was premised on far more than some factual knowledge of it. As discussed in my earlier post, Wind’s primary mode of argument was driven by a qualified form of Hegelianism, wherein the conflicts dominating English portraiture were framed as historically analogous to those that were dominating English philosophy. What links the two is a capaciously seductive but also uncomfortably fuzzy understanding of historical experience. And just as it is upon 18th century experience as a pervasive force, shaping both visual art and philosophical conviction, that Wind’s historical argument rests, so too is it to 18th century experience, as a possible romantic recreation, that Kenwood House is dedicated. As we continue to build on Wind’s work and critique his mistakes, it seems to me we should keep our own experiences of Kenwood, as a qualified but abiding success that stands behind Wind’s essay, in mind.

Cite this blog post
Oliver O'Donnell (2019, October 21). Kenwood House: 91 years on. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

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