Rembrandt returned to Hampstead Heath last November, back home again to Kenwood House after a holiday whilst the decorators were in. Self Portrait With Two Circles travelled to New York, Houston, Milwaukee, Seattle and Arkansas whilst Kenwood House was closed for over a year for maintenance work. I always like to call in to say hello whenever we’re passing so it was good to catch up.
This is the view down over London from the eastern approach to Kenwood just by Nightingale Lane.
The terrace in front of the south face of Kenwood House with all its perfectly restored stucco makeup. Fifteen months earlier its facelift was witnessed here by Christopher Corr. Now it’s smiling again.
Happy to have Rembrandt back safe and sound. It’s such a direct and splendid painting, I think I agree with Jonathan Jones that it’s the best we have, but this time I’m noticing its dandified Rococo frame too much. Was it like this last time I looked? I can’t be sure but I would love to reframe it.
There are many more treasures here, including The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer, all given to us by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh in 1927. Kenwood has since been also known as the Iveagh Bequest. In 1922 Lord Iveagh bought the house with its surrounding 74 acre grounds and bequeathed it to the nation when he died five years later, together with his extensive art collection.
In 1995 Miranda Guinness, Countess of Iveagh, another collector of art and artefacts began coming to The Rowley Gallery for picture frames. Over the next fifteen years she was one of our most regular and supportive and enthusiastic customers, now sadly much missed since her death in 2010.
This is the library at Kenwood, a pastel coloured confection designed by Robert Adam, looking like a 3D model for Josiah Wedgwood pottery. I took this photo with the camera held high above my head, a wild shot, and it was only later that I noticed I’d captured Julia Somerville sitting on the couch.
Then down the corridor we bumped into Richard Wilson and his View Of London From Highgate
and in the next room a beautifully framed Julius Caesar Ibbetson speckled cow at Caen Wood, painted for Louisa, Countess of Mansfield, which leads me to Julie Christie’s Miranda My Love Pinterest page here and more Ibbetson cows by Kenwood House Dairy. Curiouser and curiouser!
On an earlier visit we saw sparakeets and sparrowhawks. In October last year, walking past the old dairy there was the screeching cry of the now familiar cockney’s parakeets soon followed by a surprising pair of squeaking sparrowhawks, chasing each other with daredevil acrobatic manoeuvres.
They were much too fast to photograph but maybe you can see one here just above the treetops. And on second thoughts looking again now perhaps they were not sparrowhawks but maybe kestrels?
We’d come to Hampstead Heath that day from the north-east corner by Athlone House and down through the woods beside this spring which may well be the source of the elusive River Fleet.
This pool feeds Highgate Brook which flows in a ditch alongside Cohen’s Fields down into the chain of eight Highgate Ponds – Wood Pond, Thousand Pound Pond, Stock Pond, Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond, Bird Sanctuary Pond, Model Boating Pond, Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond, Highgate No.1 Pond – and then continues underground as the subterranean River Fleet beneath Kentish Town, Camden Town, King’s Cross, Clerkenwell, Farringdon, Holborn and joins the River Thames at Blackfriars.
This time round Kenwood House was not quite so wrapped up and hidden from view as it was when Christopher Corr photographed it earlier, but it was still undergoing treatment and it was still closed.
Then beyond Kenwood over by Viaduct Pond it was impossible to resist climbing inside the hollow tree, scene of countless entrances, descents, explorations, submersions, consolations and rebirths.
There was once another Hampstead hollow tree, a great elm, Ulmum Hampstedensem, complete with spiral staircase and viewing platform, seen here in an engraving from 1653 by Wenceslaus Hollar.
We emerged in the meadow by Springett’s Wood and for the first time crossed over Spaniards Road and entered Sandy Heath. This was terra incognita, a region of craters, hollows and ponds shaped by sand extraction in the 1860s, and a new discovery, another place we’d not visited before.
There was a constant sound of falling acorns, rustling the leaves and surprising the ground all around.
Later I read about the Iron Pan Ponds in Hampstead Heath by Deborah Wolton & David McDowall:
…Very much more mysterious ponds lie on top of Sandy Heath. They are partly the accidental result of sand extraction. Being more or less at the summit of the Heath they are neither stream nor spring fed, nor do they drain away, in spite of the fact that sand could hardly be more porous. The secret of these strange ponds lies in one of the qualities of the Bagshot Sand. It has a heavy iron content and in this particular case iron oxide has assisted the coalescence of the sand into a hard crust of sandstone, known as iron pan, lying about 3 feet beneath the surface. It is difficult to explain the apparently healthy oaks growing out of one of the ponds, except as predating the sand extraction…
We left the woods in time to visit the Spaniards Inn for Redemption ale and Scotch eggs then back to Kenwood for sweet chestnuts and more acorns.
I found this next group of photos in a file labelled ‘Hampstead Heath, St Stephen’s Day, 2010’. It must be the snow, all deep and crisp and even. I had to remind myself it was 26 December, aka Boxing Day.
The snow was so compacted in places that many of the paths had turned to ice. It was a different kind of walking, using different muscles and it sometimes involved sitting down quicker than expected. This was the winter we all subsequently invested in Yaktrax, a pedestrian version of snow chains.
We returned last Christmas, one damp morning; the ponds unfit for skating, the Yaktrax redundant.
But Lottie was delighted to find her favourite childhood climbing tree and the feeling was mutual; it welcomed her with outstretched arms. Then we remembered a rope swing from twenty years before.
We’d discovered it by chance one day close by here. We practically walked into it. A short piece of branchwood appeared before us, tied to a huge length of rope suspended from high up in the treetop. We took it in turns to straddle the branchwood seat and swung in great, long, slow arcs over the woodland floor. We were so mesmerised and delighted we failed to notice we were being watched. A band of feral forest children had emerged from the woods and demanded to know why we were using their swing. The smallest child reached up, as if to pluck a leaf but pulled on a twig which lowered a branch enough for him to spring up onto it, and from there he climbed confidently up to the top of the tree. Just as we finished swinging he hauled the rope up into the heights to deny us anymore joyriding.
January and February were wet and miserable, dark skies, constant rain, rivers overflowed and flooded the countryside, news bulletins dominated by weather reports. Then suddenly, out of the blue, the sun was shining. We rushed to the top of Parliament Hill for energising eyefuls of precious daylight.
We were illuminated. Everyone was uplifted. Children flew their kites, friends shared a walk, athletes stretched their legs. Dogs were everywhere, joyful and exuberent, large ones running in great circles to encompass us all, small ones spinning madly in puddles, crazy with happiness. It was contagious.
Later, at bedtime, I picked a book at random from the pile beside my bed:
Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.
These are the opening lines of Light from Kathleen Jamie’s book, Sightlines, and indeed it was the third Sunday in February when we saw the light from the top of Parliament Hill.
On the other side of the hill stands the Stone of Free Speech and, below it, the Bandstand of Free Music, where, in the summer of 1968, Jefferson Airplane and Fairport Convention gave a free concert.
Then the following year there was a whole weekend of free concerts on the bandstand, three days of Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, Taste, Fleetwood Mac, Procol Harum, Soft Machine and many more.
Hampstead Heath is also a favourite place for Mary Kuper as witnessed by these delightful paintings.
I asked Christopher for his thoughts on Hampstead Heath. He replied whilst waiting for a hair cut…
Hampstead Heath has been shaped over the centuries by the way humans have lived on it, farmed, exploited and enjoyed it. Despite these pressures the Heath has retained its ‘natural’ character and rare sense of ‘ruralness’, a unique find just four miles from the centre of London; a piece of encapsulated countryside in the city. The Heath’s distinctive landscape has become nationally renowned, immortalised in the paintings of Constable and instantly recognised as one of the principal open spaces in London – City of London/Hampstead Heath/Statement of Significance
And a birthday picnic by the Model Boating Pond – here’s to many more happy returns of the Heath.
PS: A late discovery. A book of remarkable photographs. See more here.