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Kenwood: A Visit From Beyond the Boardgame

By Freddie Bond


Monopoly, a game we have all laughed, cried, and gotten bored of whilst playing. A game combining ruthless business skills and aesthetic ideals, no? Well, in my case, our version of the popular boardgame came in the form of an English Heritage special with all the trimmings of the beautiful properties the charity owns in the UK. A post-divorce purchase of the membership by my mum brought on many lovely family trips to locations immortalised on the Monopoly board in our ownership. Like the London version of the game, colours and value related to popularity, condition, and the historic factors of these sites. For example, the dark blues were Eltham Palace and Dover Castle, two shining jewels in the English Heritage collection. But as a child my business head and idealistic wishful thinking became intwined. I had a fascination and a necessity to always collect the yellows. Perhaps not the most lucrative or successful set to own, the yellows included Iron Bridge, Wrest Park and Kenwood House, the latter being the ultimate catch. Expensive to purchase and even more expensive to commercialise, the yellows seemed to always lead me to an early exit within the competitive sibling rivalry Monopoly brings out in everyone. Now living in London, on a weekend in February I ventured on a “culture vulture” to Kenwood house, hoping for my feelings of aesthetic and business-like attachment to be validated by a real life visit from beyond the game.


The transfer from the collective memory of my childhood did not disappoint. Kenwood, a property I have never visited from the Monopoly board, is a beautifully proportioned country house remodelled by Robert Adam in the eighteenth century with a handsome façade that looks out upon a Jardin anglaise in the heart of north London. Though yes, I visited at a time where the house couldn’t look its best, the grey February weekend sky and the mood of British winter wracking at my ears, it still described the luxurious past lives of its former owners. I walked from Archway station up and down the undulating hills of Hampstead, headphones in and moving with purpose. Though no short walk, when I finally appeared in front of the façade of Kenwood immortalised in my mind’s eye from the Monopoly board, I understood why my younger self had been so keen on owning the property in the first place. It is the optima of pleasantry, with large Regency windows and ornamented Neo-Classical colonnades proportioned to the max, Kenwood (certainly from the back) is in my opinion one of the prettiest houses in the country. Just perhaps a slight shame about the heavy Greek revival portico fastened onto its entrance at the front. A rest bite from busy modern London indeed. The house flows with grace and tranquillity from its exterior and displays fine attention to detail, even in the iron work of the covered areas adjacent to the entrance. But, like Chateau Cheverny in the Loire valley of France (visited by me during the Monopoly playing days) built and remodelled in a similar time to Kenwood, is a thin building with great effort put into its façade and aesthetic but not as much in the way of substance. Not to say that this is a small house by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one of the smaller country houses in the UK. When compared to its yellow counterpart on the Monopoly board Wrest Park, this highlights Kenwood’s position as a smaller, more manageable country seat. I think it’s manageability is one of its most endearing factors. When you walk around its grounds or its interior, it isn’t too difficult to imagine yourself lounging around in a dressing gown on a sunny Sunday morning smoking, drinking coffee or reading a book, simply enjoying your “manageable” country seat. These were thoughts and games my siblings and I would play on these post-divorce “culture vulture” days out, imagining each other as owners of the handsomest properties in the land.


 Kenwood House do not charge an entrance fee, unlike many other English Heritage properties. This was a shock to me as I assumed a London property featured on the Monopoly board would ask for at least a tenner entry (which I would have certainly paid.) It went against the “Sorry I’ve got no Head” skit; Nothing is free these days...but it was! Somewhere like Kenwood brings into focus the hours of hard work volunteers put into these historic places and how caring for them must cause many headaches. I got the impression that Kenwood is a work in progress, a house that had faded from its original splendour just through years of usage and neglect but is slowing having money spent on it. I am aware of the renovation program through 2012-13 with eight rooms and the old slate roof seeing an update. However, the whole house is yet to see a full refurbishment. Kenwood didn’t lack splendour or tiredness but from one room to another upstairs, one would be fully furnished then another completely empty with paint cracking and falling off the walls. Old radiators sat faintly rusted in the corners of a corridor or room with the plain back staircase hinting to a once institutionalised usage. But the staircases can be discombobulating, with the two sets coloured in yellow and blue, leading a visitor to different sections of the upstairs rooms. The colour palette throughout the house is gorgeous to say the least with pale pinks, blues and yellows helping to guide you from one room and mood to another. However, the lack of refurbishment in some rooms upstairs creates a slightly bizarre opposite of spectrums with the splendid, refurbished Robert Adam library just down the stairs and round a corner. Double that with its small world class Art collection. Boasting Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles and The Guitar Player by Vermeer, walking through some of the more tired rooms only to be faced by works I thought lived in some famous gallery somewhere, was a pleasant shock. I was surprised, however, that the work so famously connected with Kenwood, Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, occupied a small room reserved for a children’s play area and a dressing up box. Though yes, the original sits in Scotland at Scone Palace, this painting has a depiction of the grounds at Kenwood and is the subject of books, postcards and tea towels in the giftshop. The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle is a fascinating anomaly of Georgian court life and the comfortable seat at Kenwood. It’s owner Lord Mansfield in the eighteenth century created a position in his household for a child of mixed heritage, complete with an allowance and access to Georgian high society. Now immortalised in the painting at Scone Palace, the story certainly places Kenwood as the fairy-tale setting for this progressive familial decision of its time. Kenwood only holds a photographic copy of the painting, perhaps why it runs so low in the impressive Art collection’s hierarchy and is reduced to its unfortunate display position.


Ultimately, Kenwood certainly lived up to the embodiment of my childhood Monopoly fever. Its position as a yellow reflects its nature as a sleeping giant of Neo-classical design and ideals, yet not in a complete state of repair. With an intriguing Art collection and opulent state rooms, Kenwood is a house for the ages. It isn’t just the history and the Art I love about these trips but the comfort within the self that these fascinating places evoke within me. Perhaps due to my training within a fractured household and the pressures of a family day out, the day spent walking round Hampstead and Kenwood House helped me place myself as a child, not just behind the Monopoly board, but within my own mental framework. Thanks to the lovely house and grounds of Kenwood, I was able to do this with ease and tranquillity.


All the images below were taken by me during the trip!


Exterior


Beautiful detail and colour palette of the Adam library


The Monopoly board for sale in the shop, Kenwood there as the last yellow before prison!!


Lovely ironwork adjacent to the entrance.


The Adam Library.


The heavy and austere Greek Portico.


Kenwood in its lovely parkland setting.

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