A country house set in its own private estate is not something you might expect to find in inner London. But such a house survives at the top end of Hampstead Heath, set in 112 acres of its own parkland, with a rolling landscaped garden visible from the front terrace. The sloping front lawn contains the headwaters of the River Fleet, and currently boasts a magnolia entering full bloom and several rhododendrons that are already there. Were the location more accessible the place would be packed, but that's part of Kenwood's isolated charm, almost a secret for locals and those in the know. Obviously it gets rather busier in summer, but in February you can enjoy the art in the mansion without people getting in your way, and easily get a seat in the cafe.
The estate is in the hands of English Heritage, having been handed over to the nation by its final owner Lord Iveagh, heir to the Guinness fortune. That was in the 1920s, whereas the neoclassical villa had first been created 150 years earlier by architect Robert Adam. His finest room is the Library, a stunning curved confection in pink and baby blue, recently done up in style by a Heritage Lottery grant. Closer inspection of the shelves reveals that the book collection wasn't exactly comprehensive, although there is a History of the County of Rutland in two large red leatherbound volumes, should pre-reservoir be of interest.
Pleasant though the rest of the decor is, the emphasis around the house is very much on the art hung on the walls. Lord Iveagh's collection was top class, good enough that English Heritage have volunteers and cameras in all the rooms to make sure visitors maintain respect. One of the highlights is the Rembrandt in the dining room, Portrait of the Artist, a 17th century selfie depicting the Dutchman in white cap and fur tabard. The same room also contains a true rarity, The Guitar Player, one of only thirty-odd Vermeers known to be in existence. Ask the staff on duty and they'll tell you all about it, and anything else that piques your interest, they're keen like that.
The collection features mostly portraits, a lot of painted poses, although the odd bit of sculpture and some quality furniture gets a look in too. Kenwood is also used for the display of collections the nation needs to store somewhere, like the stash of brooches, shoe buckles and tiara-bits in cases in an upper room, and a set of nine full length Tudor portraits in the room nextdoor. They're more impressive than they sound, and yes that is a lady called Emily Howard in a big ruff above the door. The orangery is nothing special, which makes it ideal for family-based stuff. And in the Breakfast Room look out for the skeleton clock (nothing ghoulish, it just means you can see inside the machinery), its creator painted in yet another portrait on yet another wall.
The art won't detain you forever, so Kenwood's other draws are food and drink and plants. The Brew House is from the same commercial stable as the champagne bar at St Pancras, so prices aren't cheap, but if you can resist the cakes and pastries then a pot of tea is quite decent. Last weekend the vegetarian breakfasts seemed to be doing a roaring trade, assuming you enjoy a squidge of spinach with your tomato and faux sausage. The clientele was also quite middle class, from pairs of dining ladies to well-heeled joggers pausing for a plate of carbs after a heavy run. Perhaps it's a bit early in the season for the garden shop to be buzzing, but that'll come. Combine your visit with a long walk on the heath and that's the best part of an afternoon sorted.