30.03.2015
14:26

Fenton House (National Trust)

Address:

Windmill Hill, Hampstead, NW3 6RT

Phone:

020-7435 3471

Website:

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/fentonhouse

Opening times:

Wed–Sun 11:00-17:00

How to get there:

Tube: Hampstead

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Some disabled access

This handsome red brick William and Mary house, one of the best late 17th-century houses to survive in London, stands at the very top of Hampstead in one of the most attractive parts of the ‘village’. From 1936 until her death in 1952, it was the home of Lady Binning, who bequeathed it to the National Trust. Lady Binning was the beneficiary of George Salting (1835–1909), a celebrated 19th-century connoisseur-collector. Though the finest items from his collection are now in national museums, something of his eclectic taste can still be felt here; the array of Chinese blue and white porcelain is especially striking. Also on display here is the important Benton Fletcher Collection of early musical instruments, given to the Trust in 1937, thus narrowly avoiding destruction in the wartime bombing of Old Devonshire House, Bloomsbury, where it had previously been housed. Music students often play the instruments, and it is a memorable experience to visit this airy house and beautiful garden, and to hear from a distant room the evocative sound of a harpsichord or spinet.

Little is known for certain about the early history of the house. It stands on manorial land which between 1682 and 1690 passed through the hands of four different lords, the last of them only six years of age. It was probably built by William Eades, the son of a master bricklayer, apparently without the help of an architect. In the early 18th century it was bought by Joshua Gee, a Quaker linen merchant who went into partnership with George Washington’s father, importing pig-iron from Maryland. Gee was also the acclaimed author of The Trade and Navigation of Great-Britain Considered (1729); his initials and those of his wife, Anna Osgood, are worked into the handsome wrought iron gates at the south entrance from Holly Hill. By 1786 the place was called Clock House. Six years later it was bought by Philip Fenton, son of a coal merchant from Yorkshire, whose family owned it until 1834. During their time here, the Regency loggia between the wings on the east side, which now forms the main entrance to the house, was added. Otherwise the house appears externally much as first built.

Tour of the House

The Hall, with original 17th-century panelling, contains an oval portrait of Philip Fenton’s son James. There is also the right-hand part of a diptych by Adriaen Isenbrandt, A Donor with St Christopher, part of Salting’s collection. Thirteen paintings by Sir William Nicholson (best known for his woodcut portrait of Queen Victoria) are on loan to the house from Ramsden Hall, Essex. Two can be seen here.

The
Dining Room occupies the whole of the south front, originally two separate rooms, one of them a morning room. Refurbished—as was much of the house—in 1973–74 by John Fowler, the man whose taste, together with that of Sybil Colefax, shaped what we now think of as the ‘English country house style’, the room now displays the rest of the Nicholson paintings. These include the Jewelled Bandalore (1905), showing a sombre woman in a feathered hat dangling an 18th-century forerunner of the yo-yo, and Hawking (1902), which shows the artist’s more famous son Ben (who later married Barbara Hepworth) as a young boy, dressed in a kilt with accompanying greyhound. Another portrait, Nancy in Profile (1912), depicts Nicholson’s daughter, who after a brief marriage to the poet Robert Graves went on to make a name for herself in textile design. Other paintings are characteristically muted still lifes and his forceful South Down Landscape Sunset 1912. Winston Churchill cited Nicholson as the formative influence on his own painting. Also in this room is the largest harpsichord in the collection, a Shudi and Broadwood of 1770. Burkat Shudi, a Swiss emigré who enjoyed the patronage of both the Prince of Wales and Handel, took on John Broadwood as his apprentice in Soho in 1761.

The Porcelain Room (which also provides a good view of the garden) contains some of the finest figures produced by English and continental factories in the 18th century. The former are displayed in the left-hand alcove: porcelain from Bow, Chelsea and Derby, a rare Longton Hall figure of a harlequin (c. 1755) and a remarkable Bristol set of the ‘Rustic Seasons’ (c. 1773–74). In the right-hand alcove early Meissen figures by master-modeller J.J. Kändler, including harlequins designed to decorate the table at the Dresden court of Augustus the Strong, can be compared with a Scaramouche modelled by F.A. Bustelli for the Bavarian Nymphenburg manufactory, and other pieces by J.C. Ludwig von Lücke for Höchst, near Frankfurt (c. 1752). On the walls hang bird and flower paintings by Samuel Dixon (d. 1769), his so-called ‘basso relievos’, which use an unusual method of applying gouache to embossed paper. They appear in their original black and gold frames.

The Oriental Room, formerly Lady Binning’s library and little altered since her time, takes its name from the collection of Song- and Ming-dynasty porcelain displayed here, mostly in a mahogany glazed cabinet in Chinese Chippendale style. On the mantelpiece stand translucent blanc-de-Chine Dehua joss-stick holders in the shape of Dogs of Fo, from the Kangxi period (1662–1722). An alcove closet contains a curious collection of Qing dynasty (1644–1911) snuff bottles in porcelain, glass and hard stones.

Upper Floors

The Rockingham Room takes its name from the china now displayed here. Rockingham ware was produced on Lord Rockingham’s estate near Manchester between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries. By the fireplace hangs an early print of Dürer’s The Sea Monster (c. 1525). The harpsichord in this room is a Shudi single-manual (i.e. an instrument with a single keyboard) of 1761 that once belonged to the pianist Fanny Davies, a pupil of Clara Schumann. In the small closet is the oldest instrument in the collection, an Italian virginal of 1540, signed Marcus Siculus, with stencilled decoration, the keyboard boxwood with ebony accidentals.

Next door is the Blue Porcelain Room, formerly Lady Binning’s bedroom. The Chinese blue and white porcelain is of the Kangxi period (late 17th–early 18th centuries), of the type later successfully copied by the Delft factories. The double-manual harpsichord of 1777 by Jacob and Abraham Kirckman, Shudi’s main rivals, features a ‘nag’s head swell’, a curved lever used for opening part of the lid. It was developed after the invention of the piano—which could create crescendos and diminuendos—in order to make the harpsichord suitable for the new musical scores, which called for changes of dynamics.

The main room on this floor is the
Drawing Room. Though also redecorated by Fowler, it is more of a piece than some of the other rooms, the satinwood Sheraton-style furniture and display cabinets having been specially commissioned by Lady Binning. In the alcove to the right of the fireplace is a landscape drawing by Jan Brueghel; between the windows an Elizabethan sweet purse embroidered with silver, gold and pearls. Either side of the chimney breast are alcoves displaying outstanding examples of Worcester porcelain. The hexagonal pink-scale vase and cover, with unusual decoration of birds and chinoiserie figures, is the most important English piece in the house. A pair of tea bowls depicts scenes from Aesop’s Fables. Meissen porcelain on display here includes an early grotesque teapot and cover modelled by J.J. Irminger and a fine pair of parrots on ormolu bases. Also here is a very important pair of Frankenthal court dancers, sometimes called ‘Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour’, in the guise of Acis and Galatea.

Across the landing, the Green Room, formerly a bedroom and dressing room, has been redecorated by interior designer David Mlinaric. There are Staffordshire figures on the mantelpiece. A Dutch cabinet displays a pair of ceramic hares from the Plymouth factory (c. 1768) and two Bow dogs of a type known as the ‘Dismal Hounds’ (c. 1758). In the closet alcove hangs Psyche, a Persian Cat (1787) and A Terrier, both by Francis Sartorius.

Leading up to the attic from the landing, the
Service Staircase is hung with a series of engravings by Houbraken and Vertue made for Thomas Birch’s The Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain (1743). At the top hangs G.F. Watts’ Neptune’s Horses (1888–92), inspired by the waves at Sliema in Malta. On the attic landing stands a French or Italian late 16th-century buffet, carved with representations of the river god Tiber and the infants Romulus and Remus. On it stands a Rhenish bellarmine wine-jar: the mask of the bearded man on this and all other ‘bellarmines’ represents Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine (1542–1621), opponent of Protestantism and of the divine right of kings.

The Attic Rooms (those on the southeast and southwest side give superb long-distance views towards the landmarks of central London) display the rest of the Benton Fletcher collection. In the southeast room is a single-manual harpsichord by Jacob Kirckman from 1752, rare in having only two sets of strings, as well as an 18th-century hurdy-gurdy and small 19th-century archlute. In the southwest room is a German clavichord, a painted Venetian virginals, and a single-manual harpsichord made by Thomas Culliford in 1783.

In the northwest room is a double-manual harpsichord by the Kirckmans from 1762, a 1925 Arnold Dolmetsch clavichord, and a spinet rescued by Fletcher from a leaking outhouse in Wales. In the north room the Hatley virginals (1664) can be seen (and like many of the other instruments, sometimes also heard). With traditional flower and fruit decoration, it is one of only ten English virginals to survive from before the Great Fire of London, and the earliest English instrument in the collection. Also in this room is a 1774 Broadwood square piano. In the northeast room stands a grand piano (1763–78), at one time attributed to Americus Backers, the inventor of the revolutionary escapement which came to be known as the ‘English grand action’. Though the piano is now known not to be by Backers, it is still of a very early date. There is also a Broadwood piano from 1805, of the type given to Beethoven a decade or so later.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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