The whole scene is amazingly gay, magnificent, beautiful and picturesque.

(R. and J. Adam, 1774)

Driving through the wooded area around Hampstead towards Kenwood House, you easily forget you are only a few short miles from central London. It’s the countryside, the ancient forest. As the bus makes its slow way up the hill on the meandering Spaniards Road, age-old trees remind us that this woodland dates back to medieval times, and probably earlier. Just before we reach 16th century Spaniards Inn the road narrows into single lane traffic and our bus awaits patiently its turn. We half expect Dick Turpin and his highwaymen to jump out of the pub and hold us at gunpoint; or Keats to emerge from the pub’s garden, where he wrote it, waving a first draft of Ode to a Nightingale.

Today, like in the late 18th century, as the visitor approaches by carriage or on foot, a turn on the road suddenly reveals the house and then the gardens. Screening the house from the road to create this colourful surprise was the inspired idea of designer Humphry Repton. He also planned the network of paths that invites the visitors to walk through the landscape surrounding Kenwood House and stopping to admire the view towards London below.

Before and after Adam

The substantial house at Kenwood was home to a succession of families from the early 17th century and came to prominence in 1754 when it was acquired by William Murray Lord Mansfield. The Lord and his wife Lady Elisabeth entertained lavishly at their weekend residence (they lived in Bloomsbury Square during the week); politicians, artists and royalty were among their frequent guests. It was Mansfield who engaged Robert and James Adam to remodel the house. Adam has already built a solid reputation, having completed similar projects at Osterley Park and Syon House.

Over 15 years, Adam worked on extending and redecorating Kenwood House. The library was added to the southeast to balance the existing orangery on the opposite side. On the North façade, a full-height portico gives the house a neo-classical elegance and grandeur. Adam sought to create a consistent appearance, by accommodating the attic storey into the overall design and covering the outside of the house with stucco.

From the entrance hall on the ground floor to the Mansfields’ bedchambers, from the ceiling panels to the carved long stools, Adam redecorated the house with flair and his customary attention to detail.

On our visit we chose to make a beeline for the Dining Room to look at the old master paintings, leaving the magnificent library as a “best for last” treat. The library is entirely Adam’s creation, a testimony to his admiration for antiquity and Italian architecture. The largest room in the house, also known as the Great Room, was designed to accommodate Lord Mansfield’s extensive collection of books. The space presents a pleasing symmetry, featuring a double cube with semi-circular apses and coved ceiling decorated with a series of oil paintings on paper by Antonio Zucchi. Adam provided drawings for the decoration of this room, including designs for the furniture and ideas for the ceiling. Based on recent research, the redecoration of the room as we see it today recreates the colour scheme conceived by Adam and his patron: soft blues, pink and white, the gilding limited to window cornices and mirror frames.

The Guinness Collection

The 6th Earl of Mansfield sold Kenwood in 1924 to Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, who wanted it as a home for his art collection, and intended to give both the house and its valuable contents to the nation. He wanted the house to present a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the 18th century’ and he succeeded.

Most of this treasure is to be found in the Dining Room, redecorated at the start of the millennium to provide a suitable backdrop to the priceless old masters displayed here. The red wall covering and window drapes echo the colour of Rembrandt’s shirt in his 1665 self-portrait. The painter captured himself at work, holding his brushes and palette, his gaze alert and focused. A circle on the right of the painting and another seen behind the artist gives this portrait its name: Self-portrait with Two Circles.

After removing ourselves from the spell of this painting, we turned to the other masterpieces in the room. One is instantly attracted to the youthful charm of the Guitar Player by Vermeer (1672). The girl wears a luxurious yellow and white coat and is smiling and looking sideways towards an unseen companion. On the wall behind her, there is a landscape painting in the style of the Dutch Golden Age. The colour and light create dynamism in the painting, enabling the viewer to almost hear the tune.

From across the room, James Stuart, Duke of Richmond, looks at her appreciatively. In the portrait, painted by Anthony van Dyck in 1646, the Duke’s gorgeous locks are set against a rich white shirt and red cloak. His fingers resting lightly on the back of the dog, the dog’s head and the Duke’s shoulder form a neat diagonal on the canvas that directs our gaze to the illuminated face of the young man.

Among notable portraits of aristocrats stands out the kind smile and confident pose of a merchant seaman, Pieter van der Broecke. Frans Hals painted his friend’s portrait in 1633; over a black jacket adorned with white lace, van der Broecke is proudly wearing the gold chain he was presented with on his retirement from the Dutch East India Company.

After dinner, the ladies retired to the Music room, for tea, music and gossip with a view of the garden. Emma Hart, later known as Lady Hamilton mistress of Nelson, is here, courtesy of George Romney. A fashionable portraitist, Romney met Emma while she was Charles Grenville mistress. Possibly infatuated with her diaphanous beauty, he painted her 28 times during her relentless social climb. The two portraits at Kenwood are of Emma in a white dress and head cover, as a spinstress and at prayer, posing as Mary Magdalen.

Mrs. Musters as Hebe is one of 17 works by Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibited at Kenwood. She looks formidable on Mount Olympus, with wild hair and dress blown by the wind. The painting of 18th century celebrity courtesan Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra dissolving the pearl, her profile and décolleté luminous like a pearl itself against the grey background is one of Sir Joshua’s finest.

Towering above them all is the life-size portrait of Mary Countess of Howe. Over two metres high, the painting combines the two genres in which Gainsborough excelled: landscape and portrait. Standing tall against a dramatic sunset, wearing a fashionable pink (transparent?) dress, Countess Howe manages to look both pretty and majestical. Aristocratic.

The 3rd Earl of Bute was happy to notice that his property afforded a view from every window. Today there are great works of art to admire inside every room.