London Travel Blog

 › entry 1 of 1 › view all entries

Hampstead Lane skirts the northern boundary of the Kenwood (aka ‘Ken Wood’) estate, but it has not always done so. A well-informed volunteer attendant at Kenwood House (see below) surprised me with the information that Hampstead Road used to run close to, and within full view of, the main entrance of the house along what is now its driveway. A map drawn in 1745 by the French car drawn in 1745 cartographer John Rocque (1709-1762) shows this clearly. In the 18thcentury, the 2ndEarl of Mansfield (1727-1796), Ambassador to France during the American War of Independence, employed the landscape gardener (1752-1818) to improve the landscape of his home, Kenwood House. This work included shifting the route of Hampstead Lane several yards north of the house (beyond North Wood), and out of sight of it (see: “Kenwood” by L Houliston & S Jenkins, publ.

KENWOOD HOUSE rhododendrons
by English Heritage).

I entered the grounds of Kenwood House at the public entrance closest to The Spaniards Inn, and followed a path flanked by rhododendron bushes (for which Kenwood is well-known). This leads to the front of Kenwood House following the original path taken by Hampstead Lane prior to its repositioning by Repton.  The path passes a stone sculpture, ‘Flamme’, carved in 1983 by Eugène Dodeigne (1923-2015).  The path opens into a large open space dominated by the north-facing front façade of Kenwood House.

The first house to stand on the site of the present one was built in brick by John Bill (1576-1630; see: http://www.

KENWOOD HOUSE Barbara Hepworth sculpture with dairy in the becakground, printer to King James I. He bought the Kenwood Estate (which was known as ‘Caen Wood’) from in 1616. Between the 13thand 16thcenturies the Estate part of a monastic wood (see: After several changes in ownership, the Estate was bought in about 1747 by a former Prime Minister and King George III’s close associate John Stuart, third Earl of Bute (1713-1792). By then, a new house had been built, and according to what (little) can be discerned on Rocque’s 1745 map reproduced in the House’s guidebook, the house’s ground plan resembled that of the present building.
KENWOOD HOUSE the fake bridge

In 1754, Bute sold the property to the lawyer and law-reformer William Murray (1705-1793), who became the First Earl of Mansfield, and was Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1756 to 1788. In 1778, he was a supporter of the recently passed, and mostly unpopular, Roman Catholic Relief Bill, which allowed Roman Catholics some limited rights that had been denied them previously. So unpopular was this legislation that violent protest against it, the ‘Gordon Riots’, broke out in June 1780. After Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square was sacked and burnt (see:, the mob set out to destroy his country house at Kenwood. When the angry protestors reached the Spaniards Inn, its then publican, Giles Thomas, learning of their objective, acted:

“… with a coolness and promptitude which did him great credit, persuaded the rioters to refresh themselves thoroughly before commencing the work of devastation; he threw his house open, and even the cellars for their entertainment, but secretly dispatched a messenger to the barracks for a detachment of the Horse Guards, which, … opportunely presented a bold front to the rebels …” (see: “Old and New London”, Volume 5, by E Walford, publ.

KENWOOD HOUSE south facing rear facade
1878). Alcohol was also supplied to the mob from the cellars of Kenwood House by one of its retainers William Wetherell, who induced them to return from the grounds of the House to the pub. The exhausted, intoxicated rebels were easily dissuaded by the military from continuing their quest.

During the First Earl’s stay in the House, he employed the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to make considerable improvements (see below). Kenwood House remained the seat of the Mansfield family until the beginning of the 1920s when it was owned by the Sixth Earl of Mansfield. After the wealth soap-maker and one-time Governor of Highgate School Sir Arthur Crosfield (1865-1938) helped to save the Estate from being developed into a housing estate, the philanthropic brewer Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927), the First Earl of Iveagh, leased Kenwood, and then purchased it.

KENWOOD HOUSE painting by Vermeer
  An avid collector of fine art, he housed much of his collection of paintings at Kenwood. He bequeathed this and his house to the public, making Kenwood House one of London’s most significant art collections (see below).

The gardens and parkland surrounding Kenwood House are magnificent, easily rivalling many 18thcentury estates that may be visited outside London. Notable amongst its many features, the garden has a lake with a structure that looks from afar like a bridge, but is not – it is a ‘trompe-l’oeil’. This can be seen clearly from the terrace running along the House’s graceful neo-classical south-facing rear façade. The lake is one of the sources of the River Fleet. Water from it flows through the series of Highgate Ponds towards central London.

KENWOOD HOUSE ceiling of the library
During my childhood and adolescence, there used to be a hemispherical bandstand large enough to accommodate a full-sized symphony orchestra. This was located on the side of the lake furthest from the House. In Summer, concerts used to be held at Kenwood. The audience sat in the open on chairs or on the ground on the side of the lake across the water from the grandstand, listening to the music that travelled across it. Apart from the irritation of planes flying overhead, it was lovely attending these concerts as the summer sun set slowly, which are now a thing of the past.

Another thing that I remember from my visits to Kenwood during my younger years has also gone. It was Doctor Johnson’s Summer House. When I looked for it recently (2017), all that remained of it was an octagonal concrete base (hidden amongst bushes) with two benches on it.

KENWOOD HOUSE old painting of the dairy
  The rustic hut, in which the great Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) used to sit, was moved to Kenwood from Thrale Place (where Johnson lived from 1765; see: in Streatham in 1968. Sadly, it was burnt by vandals sometime after 1984. The hidden concrete base is not far from another of Kenwood’s sculptures, the tall limestone, abstract ‘Monolith Empyrean’ (made in 1953), which is, in my opinion, one of the better sculptures by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975).

The House is well-worth entering. I will describe some of the things about it that caught my attention. If I had to select my favourite aspect of the house, I would be hard-pressed to choose between the Adam library and the collection of paintings, the ‘Iveagh Bequest’.

KENWOOD HOUSE london Bridge in the 17th century

The library is a masterpiece of interior design by the architect Robert Adam. John Summerson wrote in his book “Georgian London”:

“When Lord Mansfield bought Kenwood House it was a plain brick box. He employed Adam to reface it in stucco and add two low wings: the orangery and the magnificent library.”

And, it is truly magnificent, especially its intricately decorated barrel-vaulted stuccoed ceiling. Built between 1767 and 1770, it was designed to be both a library and a room in which to receive guests.

Apart from masterpieces by artists such, to name but a few, as Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Guardi, Gainsborough, Turner, and Vermeer, the collection, which is almost as satisfying at the much larger one at the National Gallery, includes a number of topographical paintings of historic interest.

KENWOOD HOUSE invalid's 'gouty' chair
A small rather impressionistic painting by John Constable (1776-1837) shows a view of Hampstead Heath. Another from the studio of Richard Wilson (1713-1782) provides a view of London from a high point somewhere in Highgate. The spires of the City of London can be seen across the fields that separated 18thcentury Highgate from London. The artist seems to have painted it from somewhere that was on the edge of a sharp drop high above the countryside below it. There are some places in Highgate village that might possibly have provided this view; for example, from Witanhurst (see below), or from the east end of St Michael’s church. Another 18th(?) century oil depicts three cows standing in front of three buildings, which were part of the dairy farm established by Louisa, the second wife of the 2ndEarl of Mansfield.

Another topographical painting, one which does not relate to local geography, is a detailed painting of old London Bridge in 1630 by the Dutchman Claude de Jongh (1605-1663). It is one of three that he made on his various visits to London (see:, and it shows the buildings on bridge in fine architectural detail.

Most of the best paintings are on the ground floor, but there is a fine collection of nine earlier paintings, ‘The Suffolk Collection’, on the floor above. These superb portraits were painted by William Larkin (1580s-1619). The paintings and the Library are my favourites within Kenwood House, but there is plenty more to see. One item, which interested me, was the ‘Gouty chair’ for invalids.

Two handles at the ends of its armrests are connected by rods and cogwheels to some wheels on the floor below the chair. The occupant of this chair could rotate the handles, and thereby propel this early form of wheelchair around the room. This item and a lovely clock were both created by the Belgian inventor John-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803).

In brief, Kenwood is a lovely stately home filled with art in an arcadian setting.

german_eagle says:
Whoa! Fantastic mansion and what an art collection! Thanks for posting, made it on my list to see.
Posted on: Sep 02, 2017
vicIII says:
Hello, Adam! You are right: discoveries never end...
Posted on: Jul 21, 2017
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
KENWOOD HOUSE rhododendrons
KENWOOD HOUSE rhododendrons
KENWOOD HOUSE Barbara Hepworth scu…
KENWOOD HOUSE Barbara Hepworth sc…
KENWOOD HOUSE the fake bridge
KENWOOD HOUSE the fake bridge
KENWOOD HOUSE south facing rear fa…
KENWOOD HOUSE south facing rear f…
KENWOOD HOUSE painting by Vermeer
KENWOOD HOUSE painting by Vermeer
KENWOOD HOUSE ceiling of the libra…
KENWOOD HOUSE ceiling of the libr…
KENWOOD HOUSE old painting of the …
KENWOOD HOUSE old painting of the…
KENWOOD HOUSE london Bridge in the…
KENWOOD HOUSE london Bridge in th…
KENWOOD HOUSE invalids gouty ch…
KENWOOD HOUSE invalid's 'gouty' c…
Sponsored Links
photo by: ulysses