William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
by David Martin 1775
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, Lord Mansfield's nieces, exhibited at Kenwood in May 2009
The north facde before Repton
and below after Repton's reformation
This account is written in four parts. The first is a history of the house and its prestigious owners for many years – the Murray family. The second is the period when it was owned by the generous Guinness family and their bequest to the nation. The third is its rescue from the developers of North London. The last is the forming of the Friends of the Iveagh Bequest or, as they are better known, the Friends of Kenwood.
The first house at Kenwood was probably a Jacobean mansion built about 1616. The area was then named Caen Wood. However after several owners it was sold by Lord Bute in 1754 to William Murray, the future Earl of Mansfield, who in the same year was appointed Attorney General at the age of 49. Two years later he became Lord Chief Justice, presiding over the English court for thirty-two years.
He is remembered for the reform and development of English law and for a judgment in respect of the freeing of a negro slave. Summing up the Lord Chief Justice declared ‘the state of slavery…is so odious’. He is also renowned for his tolerance towards Catholics.
William Murray and his wife entertained at Kenwood using it as a sanctuary from the foul air of London. A fellow Scotsman, Robert Adam, by now a famous and influential architect, was appointed to redesign the house. Robert Adam wrote that Lord Mansfield ‘gave full scope to my ideas’. The outcome was an elegant harmonious house for which Adam designed both the inside and the exterior.
Lord Mansfield’s wealth enabled him to ‘improve’ his property. Landscaping was done to give a view of St Paul’s, Greenwich and the Thames. ‘Improvements’ included the sham bridge which graces the lake to this day.
He was also a genial host, loved parties and young people. Two nieces, Lord Stormont’s daughters, helped with many social events. Lord Mansfield died peacefully at Kenwood in 1793 and is buried in the north transept in Westminster Abbey.
go to topThe second Earl, David Murray sixth Viscount Stormont, within a short time after his uncle’s death, began to convert the property into a prestigious country house set in its own park. He added the two wings that are the music room and the dining room – designed by George Saunders 1795-1796. He also built the service block, the stables and the farm buildings, the dairy and engaged the landscape-gardener Humphry Repton.
Later Earls favoured their Scottish roots and the Scottish seat, Scone Palace. In 1914 Kenwood was offered to a building syndicate for ₤555,000.
It is more than 90 years since the campaign began to save Kenwood. There were rumours that plans had already been drafted for the building of many homes there. Sir Arthur Crosfield, a staunch Liberal, wealthy soap magnate, builder of nearby Witanhurst, believed that ‘no one would suggest that a single acre of these priceless lungs could be spared’. With Sir Arthur as Chairman, the Kenwood Preservation Council was formed. Posters were pasted in the underground and wealthy benefactors sought. After the 1914-1918 war it seemed impossible that the money could be raised. By December 1924, against overwhelming odds, Sir Arthur Crosfield and his Council were able to buy two-thirds of the estate. This plaque, engraved by Richard Kindersley, commemorating Sir Arthur was donated by the Friends and unveiled in 2001 by Dame Peggy Jay.
In 1925 Lord Iveagh bought Kenwood House and its 74 acres for ₤107,900 and displayed his art collection acquired in the last two decades of the 19th Century. In 1927 he left the whole estate to the Nation. In 1928 the second Earl of Iveagh opened Kenwood to the public. During the war of 1939-45 the house was closed and its collection safeguarded elsewhere.
In the 1970s the Greater London Council took responsibility for the House and George Levy, director of H Blairman Antiques, was concerned that their stewardship might not adequately care for its priceless collection of art.
In 1976 local influential residents established a steering committee to discuss the forming of the Friends of Kenwood. The Greater London Council's Arts Board was approached which offered the Lecture Room in the House for the activities of the association but stressed that it could not give financial support. Lord Iveagh expressed delight at being asked to be Patron. On 27th February 1977 there was an inaugural meeting to launch the Friends followed by a party in the Old Kitchen with soft drinks, nibbles and a glass of wine at 25 pence a glass!
In April the Friends of Kenwood circulated their first newsletter. Membership had already reached almost 400 and included the Duke of Wellington and the actor Warren Mitchell. Friends were invited to a Private View of ‘Gainsborough and his Musical Friends’ the GLC’s Silver Jubilee exhibition. In May there was a concert in the Orangery followed by a reading of some of Gainsborough’s letters. A second Private View in June offered a collection of sixty portraits by Nathaniel Dance. A Friend' visit was also planned to Chiswick and Osterley. Friends who spoke a foreign language were asked to act as guides to foreign visitors!