Exhibition | Treasures of Kenwood House

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on March 24, 2012

Press release (9 December 2011) from the MFAH:

Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 3 June — 3 September 2012
Milwaukee Art Museum, 4 October 2012 — 6 January 2013
Seattle Art Museum, 14 February — 19 May 2013
Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, 6 June — 8 September 2013

Curated by Susan Jenkins

Thomas Gainsborough, "Portrait of Mary, Countess Howe," ca. 1764 (London: Kenwood House, English Heritage, Iveagh Bequest)

On June 3, 2012, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will debut the exhibition Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, whose four-venue national tour was announced today by the American Federation of Arts in New York. An exhibition of forty-eight masterpieces, this will be the first tour of this important group of works from the Iveagh Bequest and will provide a unique opportunity to see these superb paintings outside the United Kingdom. Most of these paintings have never traveled to the States before, and many of them have rarely been seen outside Kenwood.

Donated to the nation by Edward Cecil Guinness (1847–1927), 1st Earl of Iveagh and heir to the world’s most successful brewery, the Iveagh Bequest resides at Kenwood House, a neoclassical villa in London that was remodeled by Robert Adam in the eighteenth century. The collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Epoque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age—when the earl shared the cultural stage and art market with other industry titans such as the Rothschilds, J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Clay Frick. Acquired mainly from 1887 to 1891, the earl’s purchases reveal a penchant for the portraiture, landscape and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish works typically found in English aristocratic collections. While the majority of the paintings in the exhibition are from the Iveagh Bequest, several are drawn from the works acquired specifically for display at Kenwood. Pauline Willis, AFA’s Director, remarked, “We are extremely proud to be able to give greater exposure to this magnificent selection of paintings while Kenwood undergoes a major refurbishment.” Simon Thurley, Chief Executive for English Heritage, commented, “The collection of works of art on display at Kenwood is one of the most important in England, and we are thrilled that works from this collection will travel across the Atlantic for the first time and find new audiences in the United States.”

The collection is particularly strong in works by such Golden Age eighteenth-century English portraitists as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney, whose depictions of society beauties of the Georgian era, also known as England’s “Age of Aristocracy,” held a great appeal for Lord Iveagh. Among the several fine Gainsboroughs in the exhibition is the sumptuous full-length portrait Mary, Countess Howe (c. 1764), an image of both aristocratic elegance and of a landowner among her properties. Such full-length portraits of ladies in nature were very popular during this period, owing to a great admiration for the aristocratic portraits of Van Dyck. Along with such aristocratic women, the collection’s “virtual harem” of English portraits features celebrity demimondes, among them Emma Hart—later Lady Hamilton—who served as Romney’s muse, and Kitty Fisher—one of the most celebrated courtesans in London society.

Among the works by Dutch and Flemish masters in the exhibition is Rembrandt’s sublime Portrait of the Artist (c. 1665), one of the artist’s last self-portraits and one of only a few of his many self-portraits that show him in the act of painting. Fifty-two years old when he created it, he found little reason to dress formally or pretend to be something other than the great painter that he was. The several paintings of children purchased by Lord Iveagh often served as vanitas-like reminders of the fleeting innocence of youth. When painting Miss Murray (1824–26), a portrait of a three-year-old girl gathering flowers, Thomas Lawrence wrote to his patron, Miss Murray’s father, “All I can do is snatch (and I hope for some century or so secure) this fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes place that some few months may bring.”

The taste for Dutch and Italian landscapes and seascapes among English eighteenth-century collectors was inspired by their travels in Europe on the Grand Tour. The influx of such works into England influenced a number of English painters, including Reynolds and Gainsborough, both of whom collected Dutch landscape paintings. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s particular interest in Dutch Old Master seascapes is exemplified in A Coast Scene with Fishermen Hauling a Boat Ashore (1803–04).

Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London presents a selection of exceptional paintings, among them some of the world’s great masterpieces. Prior to the opening of the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rembrandt’s haunting masterpiece Portrait of the Artist will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (early April–late May 2012). It will hang near the museum’s own Self-portrait by Rembrandt (1660), providing a rare opportunity to compare the two works, which, although close in date, are very different in scale, format and expression.

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and English Heritage. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, with additional furding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. In-kind support is provided by Barbara and Richard S. Lane. Generous funding for in Houston is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Rodney H. Margolis and Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff. The guest curator is Susan Jenkins, a curator at English Heritage who selected the works in the exhibition in tandem with other English Heritage curators.

The AFA publication will include an illustrated checklist and texts by the guest curator, Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word and Image at the Victoria & Albert Museum and formerly Chief Curator at English Heritage, and Walter Liedtke, Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

English Heritage
English Heritage is the government’s lead advisory body for the historic environment in England and is responsible for the national collection of historic sites and monuments, as well as their contents and archives. The collection comprises more than 400 historic places and spans 5,000 years of architecture, from prehistoric sites to nuclear bunkers. It includes Stonehenge and much of Hadrian’s Wall, the ruins of the greatest medieval abbeys, the world’s first iron bridge, Charles Darwin’s diaries and the Duke of Wellington’s boots. www.english-heritage.org.uk

Kenwood House, London
Set in beautiful landscaped parkland in the midst of Hampstead Heath, Kenwood House is one of the most magnificent visitor attractions in London. This elegant villa, remodeled by Robert Adam in the eighteenth century, houses a superb collection of paintings that includes masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner and Gainsborough, as well as the Suffolk collection of rare Jacobean portraits. While the exhibition is on tour, Kenwood House will be undergoing a major repair and conservation program. The work will make the roof wind and weather tight—protecting the magnificent interior and important art collection from serious leaks and damp—and will also repair and revive Kenwood’s beautiful exterior. The project will be complete in 2013.

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