The Earl of Iveagh and Kenwood House: the Ascendancy of the New Aristocracy over the Old

As a volunteer at Kenwood House, the three questions that I am usually asked are the following (and variations thereof):

  1. Are the paintings all original and how much would they be worth?
  2. Who is Lord Iveagh and how is he related to the Earls of Mansfield?
  3. Why is entrance to Kenwood free?

I think it surprises visitors that such a superb collection of paintings can be found in a stately home off the beaten track of London’s tourist trail. The number of paintings displayed at Kenwood can barely rival that of the National Gallery, the Tate or even any of the stately homes and outstanding regional galleries across the length and breadth of the country but they are significant for their quality and the roster of artists in the collection represents a “who’s who” of 17th and 18th century painting. Among the artists included are van Dyck, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney; and there is a smattering of titans from the 19th century in the persons of Turner and Constable.

The 60 odd collection of paintings along with the house were given to the nation by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927) under the terms of his will in 1927. His will (reinforced by an Act of Parliament) also contained three important clauses that underpin the way the house and art collection is presented to the public: a) admission is free in perpetuity, b) the house remains open nearly all year round except for Christmas and New Year and c) that the house and its contents present a “fine example of the artistic home of a gentleman of the eighteenth century.”

Lord Iveagh’s story both as a man and as an art collector illustrates the decline of the old landed aristocracy supplanted by a new one whose wealth did not derive from land but from other sources such as manufacturing, banking and commerce. A scion of a family that made its wealth through the manufacture of the famous stout that bears their name, Iveagh followed his father and siblings into the family business and in 1886 floated the Guinness Brewery in the London Stock Exchange. The proceeds from this venture allowed Iveagh to retire from the active running of the brewery and focus his attention on art collecting and charity work with the latter playing an important factor into his elevation to the peerage culminating with an earldom in 1919.

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The 1880s and 1890s were a fertile time for art collectors as numerous paintings, antiques, jewels and bric a brac were flooding the market as a result of the agricultural depression of the 1870s. As a consequence of this depression, the aristocracy were forced to retrench and sell what they could in order to make ends meet. Lord Iveagh was part of a group of men such as Lord Rothschild and Sir Julius Wernher who took advantage of the number of Old Masters, early Renaissance and 18th century paintings that had come into the market.

The collection of paintings that Lord Iveagh gave to the nation along with Kenwood (known as the Iveagh Bequest) demonstrates his interests and provides an insight into his social ambition. Already prominent in Irish society, the then Mr Guinness together with his wife Adelaide (known in the family as “Dodo”) were keen to advance into British society. Using his wealth, Guinness entertained lavishly, gave money and time to worthy causes and even lent his support to opposing Irish Home Rule. In addition, he began to adapt the trappings of an aristocratic lifestyle, with homes in both Britain and Ireland furnished with the finest antiques and adorned with paintings with aristocratic provenance; most of which were acquired from one of the leading art dealers in the country, Thomas Agnew and Sons.

Largely self-taught with regards to art and the art market, Guinness didn’t only collect Old Masters and 18th century paintings, but also tapestries and historic textiles as well as patronised Victorian and contemporary artists such as John Everett Millais, G.F. Watts and William Orpen.  The quality of the paintings that Guinness bought especially those he bequeathed as part of the Iveagh Bequest were a testament to his taste, knowledge and business acumen; with the latter especially hailed by the newspapers of the day, who claimed that Guinness was engaged in a rivalry with the American nouveau riche over the acquisition of Old Masters and 18th century paintings. All of which was nonsense, Guinness had already acquired some of the best paintings and did not feel the need to compete with the Americans by paying inflated prices for pictures that did not appeal to him.

The paintings in the Iveagh Bequest can also be seen in the wider context of the times when they were acquired. Visitors to Kenwood have noted that women more than men are represented in the collection; there are portraits of society beauties, courtesans and aristocrats by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney to name a few. There’s Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Countess Howe standing confidently in a pretty pink dress, Mrs Musters in the guise of Hebe painted by Reynolds and Lady Hamilton by the spinning wheel by Romney among others. Why is this so? Julius Bryant is of the opinion that the over-representation of eighteenth century women represented some kind of escapist nostalgia; the view that somehow, the eighteenth century society with its beautiful women seemed more civilised and refined, a far cry from the pace of contemporary life with its contentious issues such as Home Rule.

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In addition, the acquisition by men such as Iveagh or Rothschild of unwanted ancestor and family portraits from aristocrats desperate to part with them was seen as necessary trappings for assimilation. As mentioned earlier, as the traditional landed aristocracy declined they were supplanted by a new aristocracy consisting of men who were in “trade”. These new peers adapted aspects of the traditional aristocratic lifestyle in order to facilitate their entry into society and unlike their older, landed counterparts, the new aristocracy had the money and means to do so.

This is also true with the acquisition of 17th century Old Master paintings. The two jewels of the Iveagh Bequest are the self-portrait by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s Guitar Player; the former hailed as one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces and the latter cementing Kenwood as one of the three places in Britain that has a painting by the formerly obscure Dutch master. When Iveagh bought the Guitar Player in 1889, Vermeer’s popularity was growing and given that few of his works survive, it is testament to Iveagh’s taste and business instinct that this masterpiece is in Britain to be enjoyed and appreciated by the public.

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Iveagh’s acquisition of art ceased after the mid-1890s but he continued with his involvement with the art world by supporting appeals of acquiring several important paintings for the nation as well as giving generous sums of money for their purchase. By then he had also began to hand over several pictures from his collection to the National Gallery of Ireland. His greatest gift however was yet to come.

By the early twentieth century, the financial woes of the traditional landed aristocracy did not abate. Increase in income tax and the introduction of death duties meant more sales of land, homes, paintings, jewels and objets d’art. The major blow came after the First World War when rates of income tax and death duties increased and necessitated into another round of sales. By then, the sixth Earl of Mansfield had decided to sell his London home Kenwood House and its surrounding lands to developers. A public appeal led by a local resident Arthur Crosfield (who was later knighted for his role with the Kenwood Preservation Council) were able to raise funds to buy out Lord Mansfield and the grounds were opened as a public park in 1925. However, the funds raised were not enough for the house and the remaining 74 acres of land that surrounded it and its future remained in doubt until in 1924, Iveagh initially took on a ten year lease of the house. The Guinness family trust later acquired the freehold for the house and the surrounding land for the price of £107,900. Upon the first earl’s death in 1927, the second Earl of Iveagh carried out his father’s wishes and handed the house and the 60 odd paintings to the nation; and Kenwood in its new guise as a museum welcomed its first visitors the following year.

The saving of Kenwood and giving the house together with a collection of paintings from the greatest names in the history of art can be seen as consistent with the first earl’s personality. As the Times observed in its obituary to the man dated 8 October 1927:

The trouble which he took to secure the most fruitful employment of his gifts was typical of his character. He was naturally modest and retiring, but no one who came in contact with him could fail to be impressed by his high sense of duty, as well as by his unaffected friendliness.

Lord Iveagh’s act of generosity is another manifestation of the decline and fall of the traditional landed aristocracy. No longer were country homes and priceless works of art merely the preserve of the privileged few but were now to be enjoyed by a wider section of society. In 2014, Kenwood House welcomed some 250,000 visitors and here’s hoping that more people will pass through the doors of this magnificent house and enjoy the building and the stupendous works of art just as Lord Iveagh would have wanted.

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Further reading:

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Dominic Lieven. The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914 (London, 1992

W. L. Guttsman. The British Political Elite (London, 1968)

Julius Bryant. Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest (London, 2003)

Laura Houliston and Susan Jenkins. Kenwood: The Iveagh Bequest (London, 2014)

Kate Jeffrey (ed.) Kenwood: The Iveagh Bequest (London, 2001)

Photo of portrait of Lord Iveagh by H.M. Paget after A.S. Cope taken by blogger. Special thanks to my husband for his photos of Mary, Countess Howe by Gainsborough; The Guitar Player by Vermeer and the South front of Kenwood House.

I would also like to thank the staff at Kenwood for providing me with the visitor figures for 2014 as well as to them and my fellow volunteers for their part in my enjoyment of volunteering.

A copy of the obituary for the 1st Earl of Iveagh could be found on the Times Digital Archive.

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4 thoughts on “The Earl of Iveagh and Kenwood House: the Ascendancy of the New Aristocracy over the Old

  1. What an informative account. The Guinness family are fascinating. It may be of interest that Lord Iveagh’s third son was Lord Moyne, who was assassinated in Cairo over the Palestine issue. There is a lot about him on Wikipedia.

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    1. Thanks and I’m glad you liked the post. I’ll look up more on Lord Moyne, it so happens that his oldest son who succeeded to the title was Bryan Guinness whose first wife was Diana Mitford. There will be an account of her marriage to Bryan that will be published this March.

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      1. Fascinating and I will try to retain as much as possible of this to pass on to visitors and add to the narrative of the house and collection. You mention Sir Julius Wehrner as one of the other wealthy non-aristocrats collecting as the same time as Guinness: you may know that he has a connection with Kenwood as his son, Harold, married Zia, second daughter of the Grand Duke Michael who lived at Kenwood until 1917.
        Lynne Scrimshaw

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      2. Thanks for your comment Lynne and yes I am aware of the connection. One of the clocks at Kenwood was purchased by Harold Wehrner and given to Kenwood as that the clock was at the house when the Grand Duke Michael and his family were in residence.

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