Changing Rooms. July 2014.

Dear Rowley,

For central Londoners, Hampstead truly is another country. You daren’t walk down the high street without an artesinal loaf in a basket trailing wildflowers picked on the Heath. The dedication to shabby, bohemian chic makes the good burghers look like Mapp & Lucia on a gap year in Bangladesh. I haven’t seen that much batik chiffon since Stevie Nicks played Glasto.

I ordered a quick Fairtrade coffee at the baker’s while waiting for my friend Judith and was astounded to see a native veiled in kaftans with knuckles dragging from the sheer volume of ethnic jewellery pull a fist full of crumpled £50 notes out of a beaded, crochet purse. Hampstead clearly has shades of Marie Antoinette skipping around her Hameau in muslin milkmaid costume of which more anon.

The reason for my expedition was a visit to the newly restored and rehung Kenwood House in the company of Judith Watt who is bar none London’s pre-eminent fashion historian. As she screeched up to the kerb we were cackling before I’d even got into the car. ‘This’ she said pointing to a battered handbag with a hide as tanned as Judith Chalmers dripping beads and bells, ‘is practically national costume in Hampstead’. As we drove around the perimeter of the Heath it became clear why the Romantic poets gravitated towards Hampstead.

Kenwood is a neoclassical beauty built to face an idyllic pastoral landscape on the northern fringes of Hampstead Heath. The present villa was remodelled by Robert Adam for the 1st Earl of Mansfield in the 1770s. Its last owner was a Guinness (plus ca change) Lord Iveagh who bequeathed house and art collection to the nation in 1927. In 2012/13 English Heritage stripped Kenwood’s interiors back to discover the original Georgian colour palette. The result is quite a revelation.

The Adam library, one of the master’s most important surviving interiors in London, has been stripped of the heavy gold leaf probably slathered over the original duck egg blue and blush pink paint colours in the reign of George IV. Antonio Zucchi’s painted panels are particularly light and lovely minus the glitter and the gold and the ceiling – as delicately decorated as Royal icing – soars now the Corinthian columns are shorn of sparkle.  The library is allowed to breathe now the hideous scarlet carpet has been removed to reveal varnished wood floorboards.

Kenwood was essentially an eighteenth century country pavilion not dissimilar to the Petite Trianon Louis XVI built for Marie Antoinette in the grounds of Versailles and it is a delight to see the interiors reflect its purpose rather than masquerading as a pompous, overwrought London townhouse. The art collection, the Iveagh Bequest, is one of London’s most important and has been intelligently rehung. The headliners – Vermeer’s Guitar Player and the late Rembrandt selfie – are in the dining room but Judith and I were much more taken by the Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough portraits in the Music Room.

I adore visiting galleries with Judith. She reads the language of  costume and spots anomalies that reflect profound changes in fashion history. I had no idea that Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Mary, Countess of Howe was the reason Judith decided to study fashion. Painted in 1764, Lady Howe inhabits an arcadian, rural landscape ostensibly dressed like a country maid wearing an apron and leghorn bonnet.

Of course the luscious pink silk dress embellished with cascades of lace at the sleeve is the height of fashion and the five rows of substantial pearls forming her choker give the lie to the innocent girl palely loitering on a forest pathway. Lady Howe was painted five years before Marie Antoinette married the future Louis XVI so we’re seeing the birth of a fashion that the unfortunate queen appropriated from the English aristocracy.

I don’t know about Judith but I’m utterly teed-off by whole rooms in stately homes being dedicated to ‘children’s play activities’. Kenwood’s orangery was built to give the finest views of the naturalistic landscape from the house.  It now lies empty but for a pile of bean bags upon which the little mites presumably frolic. It would make the most superb temporary exhibition space for costume in the spirit of the Museum of London’s pleasure gardens display. Just a thought…

From Kenwood we decamped to Keats House, Wentworth Place, where the romantic poet wrote his Ode to a Nightingale. Having recently visited Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square last week for the Discriminating Guide I was expecting to be similarly moved. Now here’s the rub. When Keats moved here in 1818 this two-up-two-down was originally two dwellings: one for Keats and his friend Charles Brown and the other for the widow Brawne and her three children including Fanny who the tubercular poet fell in love with.

In the late 1830s a rather blowsy retired actress, Eliza Chester, bought the house and added a rather flashy dining room annex. As befitting a former mistress of the Prince Regent, she imposed a gilded, red taffeta curtained Brighton Pavilion interior utterly at odds with the rest of the modest house. Sure as I am that the paint colours and fabrics in Keats’s parlour and bedroom are true to the originals, they do weigh heavy on the soul as do what can only be described as curry house carpets.

Keats House is melancholy and feels neglected. For five rooms to be give over to staff in such a small house seems ludicrous and apart from a repro of the truly lovely Joseph Severn drawing of Keats on his deathbed, the art and furniture is underwhelming. One can hardly blame Keats for seeking sunnier climbs in Rome where he died aged 25 in 1821. When Judith clocked sisal carpets on the stair her expression reminded me of one of Keats’s finest lines: ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall’.