Kenwood House will undoubtedly be familiar to many eighteenth-century historians. Perhaps you know it as one of Robert Adam’s most elaborate projects in London (begun 1764), one which included a transformation of the façades of the building and new decorations for several rooms, particularly the entrance hall and library. Alternatively, you may know it as the residence of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, one of the eighteenth century’s most important judges and a key figure in the history of slavery in Britain. The exhibition Ladies of Kenwood seeks to complement these stories with stories of women who lived at or were involved with Kenwood at some point in its history.
With such a broad premise, it is not surprising that the exhibition focuses on very different types of women, all of whom are located on a family-tree-like design on a massive banner near the exhibition’s entrance. The various displays introduce you to several characters in the history of the house through glimpses of the Kenwood collections and archives. There is a wide variety of objects on display, everything from a wonderful Angelica Kauffman painting, The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to Poetry (1782), to photographs and an album belonging to the family of the Grand Duke Michael Michailovitch, second cousin to Tsar Nicholas II, who lived at Kenwood with his family – which included two daughters, ‘Zia’ and ‘Nada’ – from 1910 until 1917.
One of the exhibition’s strengths is that it highlights Kenwood’s good fortune in receiving gifts from twentieth-century women who were great collectors. Lady Gladys Maufe gave the house a magnificent collection of approximately 1300 shoe buckles, and a selection of these have been cleverly arranged around and suspended in a cluster above a selection of historic shoes borrowed from the Chertsey Museum. Another display features Georgian jewellery, a collection given to Kenwood by Anne Hull Grundy to fill the ‘empty spaces’ she recalled seeing at Kenwood as a child, and portrait miniatures from the collection of Marie Draper.
Other areas of the exhibition explore the role women played in the working life of Kenwood. Documents from the archives tell the stories of the housemaid Ann Drabble and the assistant dairy maid Mary Self. Displays convey how rural Kenwood was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the estate not only had its own pigs, cattle and hens, it grew over sixty types of vegetables. Photographs of the 1793–96 and c.1845 stoves are interesting additions to the more commonly known areas of the house, and significant attention is given to the dairy, both its practical purpose and its role as work to be supervised by the Countess.
Naturally the lives of the Countesses of Mansfield who lived at Kenwood with their families are addressed: a sculpture of the first Countess by Louis-François Roubiliac (c.1745) is one of the first items the visitor encounters. Later in the exhibition, a chronological approach is possible, and visitors glimpse the impact the first, second and third Countesses had on the house. Among the treasures here are fragments of chinoiserie wallpaper selected for the upper hall c.1770 by the first Countess, and Gathering Apples, a painting the second Countess commissioned from the artist Julius Cesar Ibbetson in the early 1790s to decorate her new music room.
The largest story in the exhibition is also the most exceptional in historical terms: the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle. The daughter of William Murray’s nephew, Sir John Lindsay, and a black woman named Maria Belle, Dido was raised at Kenwood alongside (but not equal to) her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Through excerpts from accounts at Kenwood, a description from a visitor and William Murray’s will, the exhibition explores how Dido was treated by the Murray family, the privileges she had as well as the limitations of her position. It is a moving and thought-provoking story, one which invites visitors to wonder about the connection between this girl and her great-uncle’s landmark judgment against the slave trade.
As interesting as it is, however, the display about Dido Belle is also the most glaring instance of the exhibition’s main weakness. By far the most interesting surviving object relating to her is a double portrait of her and Elizabeth (c.1775). Once attributed to Zoffany, this portrait is an exceptional painting, a beautifully detailed image of a fascinating sister-like relationship. However, it is incorporated into the exhibition through cropped reproductions. In fact, of the exhibition’s two rooms, one is almost completely given over to reproductions. Naturally they are high quality, and they are appropriately framed, but there is something very disappointing in realizing that you will not have the chance to examine the original art works. In addition, in many cases it is unclear exactly what you are looking at: labels do not say, for example, at what scale the reproduction has been made. Displays of texts are similarly confusing: some seem to be photographs of originals, while others look more like twenty-first-century transcriptions from the archives designed to look like originals. As a result, there is a sense that while the story being told is undoubtedly true, the visitor’s connection to it is somehow false.
Closely related to this problem is the imbalance in the arrangement of the exhibition. One room is on the lower level, and this space is filled with beautiful things: the shoe buckles, the Kauffman and Ibbetson paintings, a stunning Charles Andre Boulle clock (c.1700), a magnificent harp made by Sebastian Erard in 1811, eighteenth-century portraits of beautiful women from the Iveagh collection, a chinoiserie-style armchair (c.1775), and so on. In contrast to this richness, the upstairs room, with its displays of reproductions, seems empty. The difference is jarring visually – the downstairs room is relatively dark while the upstairs is brightly lit – and spatially – downstairs you must take care not to get too close to things, upstairs the space is open and uninterrupted. It is as if you are visiting two separate exhibitions: one which is a delightful assortment of glimpses of women at Kenwood, and another in which even the fascinating story of Dido Belle cannot make up for the missing art works.
‘Ladies of Kenwood’ is at the Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch, London, from 6 September to 28 October 2012.