This list entry was subject to a Minor Enhancement on 29/06/2020
Detached villa. The original house, forming the core of the present house, was built in about 1616, and renovated in about 1749 with the addition of the orangery with boudoir to the west. Work of circa 1764-79 by Robert and James Adam included the remodelling of the south front with the addition of a second floor, and the addition of the library with anteroom to the east, and the north entrance portico. George Saunders added the projecting north wings and west veranda in about 1795; also the service wing and kitchens, which are listed separately at Grade II*. The house was restored in 1955-9.
MATERIALS: the majority of the building is stuccoed, with white brick wings to the north. Hipped slated roofs. Brick and stucco stacks.
PLAN: central rectangular block, with main entrance to north, and garden front to south. Projecting wings to the north form a shallow entrance court, and long wings to west and east extend in line with the south front.
EXTERIOR: the north front has an Ionic tetrastyle portico having an enriched frieze and medallion in the tympanum, flanked by three- window bays. Central doorway architraved with console-bracketed entablature with fluted frieze. First floor sill band with guilloche decoration. Recessed sashes. Stone entablature with dentil cornice and fluted frieze; blocking course. Wings with three windows each to courtyard. Gauged brick flat arches to recessed sashes. Stone eaves cornice. On north elevations of wings ground-floor windows of Palladian type with Ionic order. West facade: six windows with veranda of copper-tented roof supported on cast-iron Ionic openwork pillars with palmette design. South front: central block of three storeys, seven windows wide, linked on either side by single storey units to the five-bay single-storey orangery on the left and similar library to the right. Stucco central block with slated hipped roof and slab chimney-stacks. Three central window bays slightly projecting. Ground floor with a shallow, round-arched niche at either angle. Square-headed part glazed (with glazing bars) central doorway in shallow, round-arched niche. Pilasters of Adam's own invention rise through the first and second floors, paired at the angles to carry an entablature and over the projecting bays, a pediment with enriched tympanum. Recessed sashes; above the first-floor sashes enriched stucco rectangular panels. Bands at first- and second-floor levels. Linking units with Palladian windows, band above (continued from first floor of central block) and blocking course. Orangery with Ionic attached columns, paired at angles, supporting an entablature. Round-arched windows in shallow recesses with impost bands. Library similar except for square-headed sashes in round-arched recesses.
INTERIOR: largely redecorated by Adam with ceilings and murals by Antonio Zucchi and Angelica Kauffman. Especially notable is Adam's barrel-vaulted library with apses at each end screened by giant Corinthian columns; also by Adam are the library anteroom and the main staircase with iron handrail. The marble hall with a lantern carried on segmental arches was added in about 1795.
The first house on the site is thought to have been built in brick for John Bill, King James’s I’s printer, who bought the estate in 1616. In 1690 the house was bought by Brook Bridges, and significantly modified in about 1700. After changing hands several times during the first part of the C18, the house was bought in 1746 by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, whose interest in botany probably led to the addition of the orangery. In 1754, William Murray (1705-93), from 1756 Lord Chief Justice, and from 1776 1st Earl of Mansfield, bought Kenwood as a weekend villa, employing the Adam brothers to remodel it from 1764-1779. In 1793 the 2nd Earl of Mansfield set the road back to its current line in 1793 allowing the house to stand free in the park, and soon afterwards employed George Saunders to make additions to the house. In 1922 the contents of the house, including some of the original furnishings, were sold by the 6th Earl of Mansfield, and the bulk of the estate was bought in 1922 to save it from redevelopment and in 1924 vested in the London County Council. The house was bought by Edward Cecil Guinness, first Earl of Iveagh, who in 1927 bequeathed it, together with his collection of paintings, to the public. The house and grounds were run by the London County Council from 1949, passing from the Greater London Council to English Heritage in 1985.
Amongst a range of claims to historic interest, Kenwood House holds a uniquely interesting place in the history of Black presence in England, as the one-time home of both William Murray, Lord Mansfield, and of his great niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle.
As Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield presided over a number of the historic cases that examined the legality of slavery in England. The legal position on slavery in the C18 was extremely unclear, with a number of apparently contradictory historic cases being cited. A much-quoted legal ruling was said to have been made in 1569 regarding a man brought to England from Russia and regarded as a slave, the justice in that case stating that ‘England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in’ – but an apparently contradictory judgement was made in a Star Chamber trial forty years later. More recently, an opinion had been given in 1729 by the former Lord Chancellor Yorke and Solicitor-General Talbot that persons brought to England from places where they had been enslaved remained in that state of bondage, notwithstanding baptism; this informal opinion had acquired the status of a ruling.
Lord Mansfield was known to accept the Yorke-Talbot opinion; his actions indicate that he wished to avoid making a judgment on the question of the legality of slavery, fearing that such a ruling would have far-reaching economic and political consequences. However, from 1765, a clerk in the Ordnance Office named Granville Sharp had devoted himself to legal study and to campaigning in order to secure a ruling which would prove definitively that slavery was not sanctioned by English law. Sharp saw the Somerset case of 1772, the most famous over which Mansfield presided, as his opportunity. The subject of the case was a man named James Somerset, who had been enslaved in Africa and sold in Virginia to Charles Stewart, a colonial customs official; Stewart had regarded him as his property for 20 years.
Somerset was brought to London by Stewart in 1769, and on 12 February 1771 was baptised at the Church of St Andrew, Holborn. Having left Stewart’s service in October 1771, Somerset was seized by Stewart and confined in irons aboard a ship bound for Jamaica on 26 November. Somerset’s white godparents, who had welcomed him into the Church at St Andrew’s, secured a writ of habeas corpus from Lord Mansfield, demanding that he be presented to the court. Somerset then persuaded Granville Sharp, by then well known for his passionate dedication to the campaign against slavery, to support his cause.
The Somerset case opened in January 1772, with eight separate hearings leading up to the final decision in June of that year. The argument centred on the question of whether slavery was legal in England, and whether an English court should uphold colonial laws which did not have an English parallel. The final ruling on 22 June 1772 asserted that slavery lacked a firm foundation in English law, and therefore was understood by many at the time to grant freedom not only to James Somerset, but to all enslaved Black people in Britain. It was a significant milestone on the long road to Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in1807, and of slavery itself in 1833.
Lord Mansfield’s family life was more closely involved with the reality of slavery than the lives of most Englishmen. His own household included his great niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Sir John Lindsay – an officer in the Royal Navy – and a woman named Maria Bell, believed to have been enslaved, whom Sir John met in the Caribbean. Brought to England at the age of four, Dido was baptised in London in November 1766. From the 1760s she was brought up at Kenwood House by Lord and Lady Mansfield, who were themselves childless, alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. The precise nature of Dido’s position within the household is not fully understood. She was educated, and her accomplishments were admired; she supervised Kenwood’s dairy and poultry yard – frequently a genteel female hobby. One visitor noted that her great-uncle ‘called upon (her)… every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said’. However, she did not always dine with guests. It appears that she was regarded with affection, but that her status was qualified in a way which was not unusual in the case of poorer, or illegitimate, relations; the part played by her race is not possible to determine.
A double portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth, formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany, hangs at Scone Palace: whilst the portrayal of a Black woman as the near equal of her white companion is unusual in C18 British art, art historians have noted that Dido’s race is made a feature of in the painting, her turban and armful of fruit distinguishing her from her more conventionally styled cousin. In his 1782 will, Lord Mansfield took pains to protect his niece’s rights, clearly stating that Dido was a free woman; his financial legacy to Dido was smaller than that left to her cousin Elizabeth. In 1793, the year of Lord Mansfield’s death, Dido married a steward (a senior servant) named John Davinier; the couple had three sons, and lived in London, near Hanover Square, until Dido’s death at the age of 43.
In 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Kenwood House hosted an exhibition entitled ‘Slavery and Justice’, exploring the entwined lives of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the First Earl of Mansfield. The film ‘Belle’, a fictionalised version of Dido’s story, was released in 2013.
This List entry has been amended in 2020 to commemorate the anniversary on 22 June 1772 of the Somerset ruling, a significant legal landmark in the campaign against slavery.