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Kenwood House (Language level B2-C1)

Ottobre 2017
Situata su una collina londinese con vista spettacolare sulla City, lontana dal rumore e dalla folla cittadina, Kenwood House fu costruita a metà del XVIII secolo in perfetto stile neoclassico. La villa è stata anche la casa di Dido Elizabeth Belle, a cui si ispira il film La ragazza del dipinto (Belle). Ecco la sua affascinante storia…

di Toby Saul

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Kenwood House
Kenwood House
Laura Houliston
Laura Houliston

Speaker: Alex Warner (Standard British accent)

When Lord Mansfield built Kenwood House in 1754, it would have been situated in countryside that provided an escape from London’s noise and crowds. Part of the reason he chose the location is that it sits on a hill commanding spectacular views of the city, including the River Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Today, the views remain breathtaking and the natural setting is preserved by Hampstead Heath, the large and uncultivated park in which the house sits.

intellectual spirit

Mansfield was a politician and judge whose reforms of English law included some of the first steps to end the slave trade. When he built his splendid house outside London, he wanted the design to reflect the enlightened ideals of the age. He hired Robert Adam, a fellow Scot and one of Britain’s most celebrated architects. Adam’s neoclassical design captured this intellectual spirit perfectly, and Kenwood remains one of the architect’s most perfectly accomplished buildings. The gorgeous classical exterior is matched by spectacular designs inside that have remained remarkably unchanged up to the present day.

THE GRAND DUKE

The Mansfield family would own Kenwood for the next 150 years. However, later generations would spend less and less time on the estate. By the 20th century, the house was rented to tenants as the Mansfields chose to spend more time in Scotland.
The people who lived in Kenwood at the beginning of the last century included the American heiress Nancy Leeds, whose tenure ended when she married into Greek royalty. Other tenants were not so lucky. Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch, cousin to Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, lived at Kenwood. He had been sent into exile because of a marriage of which the Tsar disapproved.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution destroyed what was left of the Grand Duke’s fortune and he had to leave London for the south of France. Even though his time in Britain was marked by personal scandal and financial catastrophe, the Grand Duke seems to have enjoyed his time on Hampstead Heath, and even today it is easy to imagine how the European aristocracy must have lived and loved in the years before the First World War.

dutch masters

By 1922 the house had fallen on hard times. The 6th Lord Mansfield auctioned the contents in a sale that lasted four days. There was even a danger that the house would be demolished and the site redeveloped. One of London’s great architectural gems might have been lost forever. Salvation arrived in the form of Edward Cecil Guinness, of the celebrated Irish brewing family. Guinness not only bought the entire plot of land including the gardens, but filled the house with a world class collection of art. Kenwood’s treasures include an extremely rare Vermeer portrait, one of only 34 in the world. This is complemented by one of Rembrandt’s most important and enigmatic self-portraits.

philanthropy

Work on Kenwood House continues. English Heritage, the organisation that administers the house, has been tracing some of the objects and furnishings  that were sold off in the 1920s. Sometimes it is possible to repurchase the items and restore them to their original setting. The landscaped gardens are much as they would have appeared in the eighteenth century.
Guinness never lived at Kenwood, but in one of the philanthropic acts for which his family were famous, stipulated that the house should be open free of charge to the public. Today, anyone who makes the trip across the Heath can enjoy house, gardens and art collection free of charge.   

www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood

INTERVIEW

The mysterious belle

LANGUAGE LEVEL C1 (ADVANCED)

Speaker: Alex Warner (Standard British accent)

Kenwood is a beautiful neoclassical villa that sits at the top of Hampstead Heath in London, with fantastic views down to St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the home of Lord Mansfield, a young Scottish lawyer who became Lord Chief Justice. With another home in central London, Mansfield used Kenwood as his weekend retreat. He employed Robert Adam, a fashionable architect, to extend the house. Laura Houliston is the senior curator for English Heritage that administers Kenwood today. She began by describing the house.

Laura Houliston (Scottish accent)

Visitors today come into the house and see this beautiful neoclassical villa at the top of Hampstead with fantastic interiors inside. There’s a large library thought to be one of Adam’s greatest designs and Mansfield was a great bibliophile. In 2013 we redecorated the room and as you walk into the room now you really experience what Kenwood would have been like in the 1770s when Mansfield lived there.

dido belle

Laura Houliston went on to talk about one of Kenwood House’s most intriguing residents: a young mixed race woman called Dido Belle, the daughter of a slave, who was adopted by the Mansfields under scandalous circumstances:

Laura Houliston

We know quite a lot about Dido Belle. That was not necessarily the case some years ago, but a lot of research has been done over the last twenty years. Lord and Lady Mansfield didn’t have any children of their own, but they did look after two of their great nieces. Lord Mansfield’s nephew was called John Lindsay, a naval man, and he had a child with a slave and that was Dido Belle. She lived at Kenwood as a companion for her cousin. She was a young mixed race woman who came to London in the 18th century and we have a very good painting of her alongside her cousin Elizabeth that was painted at Kenwood, and that was really initially the starting point for research.

period drama  

Dido Belle was the subject of the 2013 film Belle that was inspired by the painting of Dido and Elizabeth. Yet the apparent equality of the women in the artwork is deceptive:  

Laura Houliston

Once you start searching through archives and papers, you can find more facts about Dido’s life and so much more has been dug up about her now. She had a unusual position at Kenwood in that she’s obviously very much loved by Lord Mansfield and part of the family, but this is the 18th century, when slavery was commonplace, and she is mixed race and she is illegitimate. From looking at the account books, for example, her cousin Lady Elizabeth is given more allowance and more birthday money. A lot of research has gone into Dido and what happened to her after Kenwood. So, when Lord Mansfield dies, he mentions Dido in his will and reiterates her freedom. She goes on to marry a Mr. Davinier and she can still be traced as being in London when she’s married. She does die fairly young in her early forties, but she has three young sons and the baptism record for the boys can be found and her descendents can be traced right down through to the 1970s in South Africa.

building a picture

Laura Houliston then described more ways in which the history of Dido Belle was pieced together, even though she lived in the age before Internet:

Laura Houliston

Dido transcribed a letter for Lord Mansfield so we have a sample of her handwriting. Other than that, we have baptism records, marriage records and that sort of thing so we can build a picture. A lot of work has been done in America, in Florida, about her mother Maria Belle, who we didn’t previously know a lot about. Maria was in London when Dido was baptised and it now seems that she was still in contact with John Lindsay years after. She ended up in Florida, Pensacola. Lindsay gave her land there and she had a house. Mixed race children were very common at this time, but Dido being part of the Mansfield family, being brought into the family at Kenwood and being in their life, I suppose, is more unusual. 


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Explains

The Grand Duke. Il Granduca dovette abbandonare Londra e andare in Francia. La causa era stata la rivoluzione russa, che lo aveva rovinato economicamente. Il Duca, abituato al lusso, non poteva permettersi di vivere da aristocratico in una grande villa a Londra. Pertanto preferì trasferirsi nella Riviera francese (dove c’era una comunità di russi espatriati), piuttosto che rassegnarsi a vivere più modestamente.

Heath. Letteralmente, una brughiera. Si tratta di una parcella lasciata allo stato selvatico, dove non si realizzano coltivazioni e che non è stata trasformata in giardini. I londinesi spesso si riferiscono a Hampstead Heath come “the Heath”, pur non essendo l’unica zona della città con queste caratteristiche.

Lord Chief Justice.  Si tratta di un importante incarico giudiziario equivalente al presidente di un Tribunale Supremo.