What is Kenwood House?
Kenwood House is an elegant Neoclassical mansion and former stately home high up on Hampstead Heath that now houses the Iveagh Bequest, a major collection of paintings left to the nation in 1927.
Kenwood House History
London has no shortage of palatial homes: former (and sometimes current) residences of the rich and the noble, adorned with beautiful works of art, artefacts and other precious commodities, set among meticulously manicured gardens now surrounded by the city. Kenwood House is one such, typical in some ways but distinctive in others. Built in the early 17th century and significantly modified in about 1700, this manor on Hampstead Heath has traded hands between wealthy noblemen for 400 years.
A free gentlewoman of Kenwood House stands out among the noble crowd. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born a slave in 1761 in the British West Indies. She was an illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a naval officer who left several children in his wake as he travelled the Caribbean and the Senegalese coast. Dido was brought to England by her father a few years after her birth, and entrusted to his childless uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. She moved into his home at Kenwood House and was treated as a daughter, much to the annoyance of many English aristocrats.
An educated and intelligent woman, she became the source material of many counterarguments to the notions of white supremacy which enjoyed wide popularity in the 18th century. James Beattie, the Scottish poet and philosopher, remarked that theories of genetic intellectual superiority had been proven false by the girl’s intellect: at ten years old, she spoke with such ‘a degree of elegance’ as to surpass her English contemporaries. As an adult, she acted as a legal clerk for her great-uncle William, earning several times the typical wage of a young working noblewoman.
Her guardian and father figure was, perhaps, Kenwood House’s most notable owner. As a member of Parliament, he promoted legislation that catalysed the legal movement towards the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. The presence of a black woman in his household was not lost on slavers who opposed his decisions, claiming that Dido ‘govern[ed] him and his whole family’.
It was Dido who cared for her great-uncle as his health deteriorated in old age. After the death of Lady Mansfield in 1784, and the marriage of her cousin and closest companion the year after, Dido took on many of the responsibilities of the Lady of Kenwood House, and remained in William’s home as his carer until his death in 1793. In his will, he conferred formal freedom on her, ensuring her status and safety amongst a society that regarded her as a slave. She married and left Kenwood House after her great-uncle's death, settling in Pimlico, London.
The house has passed through many hands since her death in 1804, and was eventually left to the nation in 1927. The elegant mansion, with its graceful white stucco exterior, now houses the Iveagh Bequest, named after Lord Iveagh, a prolific art collector and supposedly the second richest man in early 20th-century Britain. The collection has an impressive selection of 18th-century British portraiture and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish works, including The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer and a self-portrait by Rembrandt.
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