Thursday, November 16, 2006

Kenwood House: Spend a Day in English Arcadia

Certain artists attract huge crowds. Right now in London, Velasquez packs them in at the National Gallery while Leonardo da Vinci and Rodin reek similar havoc at the V & A and Royal Academy. But if you are fed up with all that craziness (after all, it is only art) thirty minutes from central London, in a particularly lovely corner of Hampstead Heath, you can stand in one of England’s finest stately homes and admire the work of superstars such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Turner completely and utterly by yourself.

In fact, Kenwood House, established as a museum by an Act of Parliament in 1929, offers visitors to London the ultimate English experience: world class art in a premier country house with loads of history and atmosphere unmarred by crowds. On a weekday, you might encounter the odd group of school children and the random tourist touring the house but for the most part, the place belongs to very English looking ladies in sturdy boots walking their very English looking dogs around the grounds. Even if you have only a few days in London, I recommend that instead of fighting it out in the centre of town, take the Northern Line to Golder’s Green tube stop, hop on the 210 bus and spend a blissful day in English arcadia.

The story of Kenwood House begins with its remodelling between 1764 and 1779 by the pre-eminent architect, Robert Adam, who transformed the original brick building into an impressive country villa for Lord Mansfield, a prominent judge. The house was later bought by the brewing magnate Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh, in 1925 and upon his death in 1927, he gave the estate and a portion of his pictures to the nation. The fact that these pictures are magnificent and look all the better for being displayed in a stately home rather than a purpose built gallery is, for my money, the icing on this wonderful cake. And if that weren’t enough, unlike most English Heritage properties which can be quite expensive, this one is absolutely free. For hunters of tasteful souvenirs to take home, the Gift Shop has plenty on offer.

If you have finished in the house, do not miss the opportunity to visit the grounds with park, lakeside and woodland walks and if you venture farther, you can walk for hours on the immense Hampstead Heath, one of London’s largest open spaces.

I also recommend having a drink or a pub lunch at the historic Spaniards Inn which has been operating since 1585, was mentioned in Dicken’s Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and has been patronised over the years by Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Hogarth, Reynolds and Constable. The Inn is also famous for having been the hideout of the highwayman Dick Turpin and his equally famous horse, Black Bess during the time that Turpin’s father was landlord. I had a good soup and sandwich there recently for a reasonable £8.50. The Spaniards Inn is about a 10 minute walk from Kenwood House.

To get back to central London, retrace your steps (210 bus to Golner’s Green) happy in the knowledge that while everyone else was waiting in line to see Velasquez, you were alone with Vermeer.

Kenwood House
Hampstead Lane
London, NW3 7JR
Tel: 020 83481286

Spaniards Inn
Spaniards Road
Hampstead Heath
London, NW3 7JJ
020 8731 6571

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