After a closure of ten months, it is worth paying a visit to the refurbished Kenwood House, home to great paintings by Gainsborough, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Dyck, among 63 from the Earl of Iveagh’s Collection.
The change is imperceptible. The elegant Georgian house has been repainted and its flagship Great Library, established by its first owner, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, has a repainted ceiling in pastels of pink, green and blue, inset with miniatures by Antonio Zucchi, the gold leaf detail hidden by removable paint. It has been refurbished for the first time in over two centuries in accordance with its original design.
The exterior details, created by the 18th-century Scottish architect John Adam, look cleaner now, but in a strange way more synthetic than before the Heritage Lottery Fund, ArtFund and Wolfson Foundation poured £5.95 million into it.
This essentially pretty - almost chocolate-box ¬¬- house with its pediment sand-painted to look like stone and its Doric and Corinthian pillars, is set in the rolling grounds of Hampstead’s Kenwood, beautiful in all weathers, even on the muddy, windswept day I saw it. A portrait of Lord Mansfield stares down in disapproval at the muddy feet on the Persian carpet.
The sculptures include a Socratic bust with a carefully sculpted curly beard. Some are original marble and some, like the statue of Mercury, are plaster copies. A cast of Flora and a Muse is taken from Syon House in west London.
The Orangery is now peopled by children with ipads sitting on the floor. Each room has a linen-bound guide. Some renewed pieces have been added to reflect the wishes of Kenwood’s last owner, the 1st Earl of Iveagh, who donated the house to the nation in the 1920s.
The paintings always surprise, even though bad lighting can make viewing a struggle. Some early Turners beneath a high atrium were almost invisible because the frame lights were off and others are hung too high. In a room full of pallid, limpid beauties, you can find Sir Joshua Reynolds’s cloudy skies and prayerful ladies, Gainsborough’s Lady Briscoe and Her Dog, and even a small Constable.
A must-see is Rembrandt’s marvellous self-portrait as an older man: his calm and wise eyes, his bulky body, simple white cap, and the sense of just having wiped his palette clean to surprise us with his fresh candour. Also Van Dyck’s Princess Henrietta with her little black page boy and Vermeer’s Guitar Player, showing a rosy-cheeked woman seen off-centre and glancing sharply over her right shoulder. Franz Hals’s arresting portrait of Pieter van den Broecke, in a lace collar, almost as familiar as the Laughing Cavalier, grins beneath his untidy brown hair.
Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt, painted his Portrait of a Lady with a detailed white ruff setting off her pellucid skin. Reynold’s Miss Cox and Her Niece seems a charming indulgence in a house full of formal, wistful ladies. And then comes Landseer’s Hawking in Olden Times, in which a hawk is flung at a heron, whose death throes in a flurry of wings fill the sky.
Angelica Kauffman’s cameo self-portrait shows her as the Muse of Design with Poetry. Other famous works include George Romney’s Spinstress, featuring the beautiful Lady Hamilton, his lover, in a long white shawl.