Kenwood House doesn’t look like a museum.
It sits on a crest of London’s Hampstead Heath, commanding expansive views across the city. Resembling an English country squire’s handsome rural retreat, it’s a far cry, in its opulence and scale, from Highclere Castle (better known to PBS television viewers as Downton Abbey).
Still, Kenwood’s art treasures — if put on the market — could go a long way toward helping Downton’s owners cope with some of their cash-flow problems.
Like any old home, Kenwood House needs a lot of upkeep. Early last year, it closed for “urgent repairs” to its leaky roof and weatherworn facade.
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On Thursday, Kenwood’s hiatus becomes Seattle’s opportunity when “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London” opens at the Seattle Art Museum. The show, which includes roughly two-thirds of Kenwood’s collection, will help finance some of Kenwood’s repairs.
SAM is complementing the Kenwood show with its own “European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle,” an exhibit of locally owned artworks, some as extraordinary as the finest from Kenwood.
“Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough” was coordinated by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) in cooperation with English Heritage, which runs Kenwood.
Seattle is one of four stops the exhibit is making in the U.S. The tour marks the first time that any of these artworks have crossed the Atlantic.
Julius Bryant, former chief curator at English Heritage (and author of a snappy essay in the small catalog for the touring exhibit), calls Kenwood’s holdings “the most important collection of old master paintings to be given to Great Britain in the twentieth century.”
There’s only one Rembrandt in the collection, but it’s a stunner: a self-portrait commonly deemed the finest he ever painted. A splendid Frans Hals portrait, “Pieter van den Broecke,” and a striking “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Ferdinand Bol are among the other 17th-century Dutch highlights.
The other dominating vein of the collection is 18th-century British portraiture, especially works by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
How was Kenwood’s collection put together?
With beer money, you might say.
It was all purchased by the Earl of Iveagh — better known as Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927), grandson of the founder of Guinness brewery — in order to furnish his 150-room mansion near Hyde Park Corner. He went on his art-shopping spree starting in 1887, and shortly before his death he purchased Kenwood House with the aim of re-creating in it “a fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century.”
To the uninitiated eye, the intimate Dutch portraits sit a little oddly alongside the more mannered British work. And where do the Turner seascape or Guardi paintings of Venice fit in?
“I think that what unites it is late-19th-century British taste,” explains Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s curator of European painting and sculpture. “You can’t think about the shape of the collection without thinking about Guinness’ personal ambitions.”
Having a suitable art collection was one way he could impress the upper echelons of society.
“It doesn’t rock the boat,” Ishikawa says. “He has the best, the highest level, of the things that people liked: 17th-century Dutch landscape and seascape, 18th-century British portraiture.”
Ishikawa notes a certain resemblance between Guinness and fictional newspaper tycoon Sir Richard Carlisle in “Downton Abbey” who, at one point in the TV series, is examining a stately home where he and his then-fiancée, Lady Mary Crawley, intend to dwell. When she wonders what they’ll put in it, he says, “Paintings.” And when she asks where they’ll get these paintings, he says, “We’ll buy them.”
Her response: “Your lot buys them. My lot inherits them.”
That, says Ishikawa, was Guinness’ situation in a nutshell.
“He had to put it all together. And he did it in a seven-year period. He bought about 350 paintings in that time. It was fortunate for him that he had, first of all, the resources and, second of all, the supply. Great things were coming out of aristocratic homes.”
A similar opportunity has arisen in the past two decades for wealthy Seattle collectors, whose holdings can be seen in the 37 artworks in “European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle.”
Ishikawa points out that while modern and contemporary art prices have skyrocketed, paintings of older vintage have been stable in price, attracting new collectors. Also, more inventory is available than in the past: “Things that have come out of family collections, new discoveries.”
“European Masters” includes some artists who are household names — Hals, Titian, Rubens — but its most astonishing finds are more off the beaten track.
Flemish painter Louis Finson is one of them. Finson’s “An Allegory of the Four Elements” (1611), with its whirlwind of four fiercely struggling male and female figures, will amaze viewers. So, in a more sedate way, will Georg Pencz’s “Portrait of Sigismund Baldinger” (1545), with its plush contrast between the Nuremberg businessman’s fur and satin garb.
It’s a privilege to see the Kenwood holdings in the flesh. But it’s the promise implicit in “European Masterpieces” that’s the real news in terms of SAM’s own future.
When Ishikawa came to SAM in 1990, the prospects for growth in SAM’s European collection were, she says, “very modest.” Now, with local collectors making such canny purchases, the outlook has changed: “I feel like we really have some promise, if it turns out that these things stay here.”
Her ideal scenario: “People will come up and say, ‘Well, you missed my collection.’ ”
And with that, perhaps, a whole new treasure trove will come into view.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com