The Iconic Art of Kenwood House

English Heritage

From Dutch Masters and English rivals to the spectacular ceiling of the Great Library

A Remarkable Setting
Kenwood House, a striking Georgian villa, presides over the edge of Hampstead Heath in north London.

This remarkable property has an art collection to match its stunning setting.

We will explore three of Kenwood's world-class attractions: the collection of portraits by Dutch Old Masters, the paintings by great 18th-century rivals, Gainsborough and Reynolds, and the exquisite neoclassical ceiling of the Great Library, pictured here.

Dutch Masterpieces
Kenwood House is home to portraits by some of Europe's most revered painters.

The former Kenwood House dining room now houses stunning examples by some of the world's best-known artists.

This rare work by Johannes Vermeer is characterised by his extraordinary ability to capture the effects of light.

Using unconventional composition techniques, Vermeer creates a seemingly informal image of a girl interrupted while playing the guitar.

This is the only known painting by the artist to have survived in such excellent condition. It has not been retouched and is still on its original stretcher.

It has been suggested that the model used in the painting is Maria, Vermeer’s own daughter.

The Portrait of the Artist is considered one of the world's finest paintings.

A psychologically powerful image, it is Rembrandt’s most significant self-portrait.

Perhaps the most mysterious and, as yet, unexplained features of the painting are the two arcs in the background.

One possible explanation is that they allude to the Italian painter Giotto, who was rumoured to be able to draw a perfect circle freehand. Rembrandt might have intended the circles to be a display of his own artistic skill.

Pieter Van den Broecke, the subject of this portrait by Frans Hals, was a merchant with the Dutch East India Company.

He is shown wearing a three-strand gold chain which was given to him to mark 17 years of service in the company.

The friendship between the sitter and the artist can clearly be seen in this highly personal, almost informal, portrait.

Gainsborough and Reynolds
The two giants of British portraiture - and their bitter rivalry.

Works by these artistic titans can usually be seen in display in Kenwood House's lavish Music Room.

Competition in 18th-century British portraiture was fierce. This painting, considered one of the great achievements of the time, sets the stage for the famous rivalry between Sir Joshua Reynolds and the artist here, Thomas Gainsborough.

More than any other portrait by Gainsborough, this shows the artist's extraordinary ability to draw on the grand style of past masters and yet create something unmistakably his.

While Reynolds developed a 'Grand Manner' of painting which referenced classical art and Italian Renaissance masters, Gainsborough placed his sitters in contemporary, often natural, settings.

Gainsborough deliberately elongated the shape of the sitter in this portrait. It meant that when hung high on the wall and viewed from below, the painting would foreshorten and the image of the sitter would appear of natural proportions.

Despite its unusual and troubling subject matter, this work by Gainsborough was highly praised for its naturalism when it was shown at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1783.

One critic proclaimed it the ‘best painting in the room’.

In contrast to the naturalism of Gainsborough's portraits, this painting clearly demonstrates the ‘Grand Manner’ of portraiture of Reynolds.

In this monumental composition, Reynolds shows society beauty Sophia Musters as the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe.

She pours nectar from an ewer into a shallow bowl and offers it to Zeus, who appears in the guise of an eagle.

In this allegorical painting, Reynolds appears to be making an ironic comment on contemporary painters who did not hold with his theories about the ‘Grand Manner’ in art.

He may also be poking fun at the Royal Academy itself which, having been founded in 1768, was still in its infancy.

The Grand Ceiling of the Adam Library
Explore Antonio Zucchi's magnificent ceiling paintings.

The Great Room (or Adam Library) functioned as the library of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

He commissioned the architects Robert and James Adam to design the space and its furnishings.

The delicate filigree of plaster work was executed to Adam’s design by Joseph Rose.

It incorporates motifs taken from classical architecture, including festoons, demi-boys, swans, vases, anthemia (Greek honeysuckle) and rinceaux (scrolling foliage).

Framed within the plasterwork are 13 ceiling paintings by the Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi.

Zucchi was persuaded by Robert and James Adam to come to London and work for their architectural practice as a decorative painter. Kenwood was one of Zucchi's first projects.

Zucchi’s paintings form a complex series of allegories that comment upon the career and interests of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

As Lord Chief Justice, Murray was particularly interested in the laws surrounding much of British trade, including the transatlantic slave trade.

Executed in oil on paper, the four semi-circular paintings show allegories of Commerce, Navigation, Agriculture and Justice Embracing Peace.

Justice is depicted as a female figure holding a set of scales while Peace – also depicted as female – is in the company of a winged putto bearing olive branches.

It was placed on the north wall of the Library, over David Martin's portrait of William Murray.

Zucchi's paintings in the four, quadrangular panels relate to the function of the room as a library. Each of these paintings depicts an allegory of four areas of knowledge represented in Murray’s extensive book collection.

Theology is shown as a seated figure looking heavenwards for inspiration, with a wheel at her side – possibly a reference to Ezekiel's vision in the Old Testament.

Jurisprudence is shown seated on a throne, one hand on an open book and the other holding a sceptre.

Philosophy is represented by a contemplative figure, seated in a rocky landscape and holding a bound volume of writing.

Mathematics is shown holding a set of compasses. Geometry tools lie at her feet and she is supported by a celestial globe.

Accompanying the allegories relating to William Murray’s particular intellectual and professional interests, Zucchi also included four twelve-sided panels showing personifications of the seasons.

Zucchi depicted the seasons in the guise of four female figures in the company of putti, undertaking rural activities appropriate for the time of year.

Autumn, for instance, is shown with putti harvesting corn.

In this classical depiction of summer, the power of nature is represented through summer fruits.

Zucchi depicts winter as a woman and child warming themselves by a fire while more kindling wood is carried in.

The dark evening light reflects that it is the fourth and final season of the yearly cycle.

The centrepiece of Robert Adam’s magnificent ceiling takes the form of a large, oval painting. Here, Zucchi has taken the well-known subject of the ‘choice of Hercules’.

The demi-god and hero Hercules, shown seated and clad in red drapery, was asked to choose between glory (represented by a woman in military dress) and his passions (represented by a group of young women with flowers, a ewer of wine and the attributes of music).

Glory draws Hercules’s attention to the far-distant Temple of Fame that may only be reached by scaling a steep mountain.

Hercules is being asked to choose between the two possible routes his life might take: one easy path and one that will prove arduous but ultimately rewarding.

Zucchi’s paintings, as well as the architecture and furnishings that Adam designed for this space, acted as a monument to William Murray’s achievements. They suggest that, just like Hercules, Murray chose the difficult path – in Murray's case the study and practice of law – and that by following that path he ultimately achieved his own recognition and fame.

Credits: Story

Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, Rose Arkle

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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