Perched on the northern edge of London's Hampstead Heath is Kenwood House, a magnificent estate where my Granny recently took me for lunch. "They have a wonderful Rembrandt self-portrait in their collection," she mentioned casually.
The majesty of the grounds - appreciated by both tourists and locals alike on this unseasonably sunny spring afternoon - is easily matched by the exquisite home. The original house was built for John Bill, King James I's printer, a brick structure but by no means modest (records show it contained 24 hearths). Its major transformation occurred after it was purchased in 1754 by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, for the tidy sum of £4,000 as a weekend country villa. As William and his wife Elizabeth became more enamoured with its beautiful surroundings, they commissioned the renowned Scottish neoclassical architect Robert Adam to remodel, expand and modernize the house in 1764.
The home was passed down to half a dozen Earls of Mansfields until 1922, when the 6th Earl held a four-day sale and dispensed with most of the original furnishings. The home was bought along with 74 surrounding acres by the 1st Earl of Iveagh, Edward Cecil Guinness (of the beer dynasty). And so in the hands of an Earl it continued until his untimely death five years later, at which time the estate was bequeathed to the nation, stipulating that it should be open free of charge to the public with the "mansion and its contents...preserved as a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century". The rooms have been refurbished to reflect that time as well as featuring Guinness's impressive personal collection of Old Master and British paintings, the Rembrandt displayed in good company with Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough, and several portraits of Lady Hamilton (famously the mistress of Lord Nelson). Of the interiors the library is most impressive, showcasing Adam's colour schemes and retaining the original decorative ceiling paintings by Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi.