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Kenwood House 2

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I wrote two weeks ago about Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, the new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum whose opening we had to miss because of a conflict. Recall the overview offered at the SAM website, courtesy of SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

Kenwood House is a property of English Heritage, described at its website as “the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment. Officially known as the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, we are an executive Non-Departmental Public Body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

Our one consolation on missing the opening was that we knew we would see the exhibition soon. Back in December, we had received an invitation from English Heritage CEO Simon Thurley to attend a “drinks reception, followed by a private tour of the exhibition with our Senior Curator, Dr Susan Jenkins.” Though puzzled that I had made the invite list, I wasn’t puzzled about how to reply, immediately saying yes on behalf of Gail and myself. English Heritage fundraising director Ian Vallance responded with confirmation.

Last Monday was the day. Inasmuch as we were told to come to a drinks reception, we thought it best to have a light meal beforehand. We parked at SAM, then crossed the street to the Four Seasons Hotel for light snacks at ART, the restaurant I raved about two months ago after we ate there with my cousin John and Joan. Ordering off the lounge menu, we had Uli’s Merguez sausage soft tacos, trio of potatoes, and Dungeness crab cake bites. Uli’s is the local sausage maker just a block up at Pike Place Market. Each taco came with a single sausage, crisp shallots, and raita, and they were fabulous. The potato trio consisted of fries, potato wedges, and tater tots, with a spicy ketchup and another dip that I’ve forgotten. An excellent start to the evening.

We crossed back to SAM a few minutes early, but guests had already arrived, wine and sparkling water were being served, and hors d’oeuvres from Taste (the restaurant one floor below) were being passed. Cocktail tables were set up in SAM’s large entry space. There weren’t many guests. Eventually twenty showed up, by my count. Soon we were talking with Ian about the show’s previous stops in Houston and Milwaukee, its final stop in Little Rock, his trips to each of the exhibitions, the renovation being done on Kenwood House, and more. Other guests joined us, as well as the new SAM director Kimerly Rorschach. She had previously been director at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, which we visited last April. I mentioned our visit, and soon we were talking about life in Chapel Hill, where she and her family lived and where Joel is now.

We also chatted with some of the other guests, including a well-known Seattle couple who seemed as puzzled as to why they were at the reception as we were, which was reassuring. And with Simon, who like Ian was thoroughly charming.

The time came for the program. Simon gave us some background on English Heritage and on Kenwood House. He introduced Susan Jenkins, asking if she wanted to make some remarks before bringing us upstairs to the exhibition. She kept it short and simple: “Follow me.”

And so we did, up two flights and over to the exhibitions first room. The next forty-five minutes were sheer delight, as Susan told us about the house, the collection, and two or three paintings in each gallery room. Many of the paintings are portraits, and Susan also filled us in on the people portrayed.

You can see many of the portraits at the SAM website. Clicking on each one brings up additional information. For instance, you can click on Frans Hals’ portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (included at the top of this post) and learn:

The Dutch seaman Pieter van den Broecke began his career trading fabrics in West Africa. He eventually took over a company that dominated the Dutch trade in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In this portrait by Frans Hals, he’s 48 years old and wearing a gold chain that marks his 17 years of service with the Dutch East India Company.

He and the artist were close friends. The merchant seaman actually attended the baptism of Hals’s daughter Susanna.

The result of such rare chemistry between sitter and painter, critics note, is the dazzling portrait you see here.

Hals was the type of painter who worked fast and he liked his subjects to take up most of the canvas. This portrait was painted in 1633, a time when both artist and subject were at the height of their careers. That could have been why Guinness was attracted to it in the first place: a portrait of a successful Protestant, fortysomething merchant—much like himself.

Or, click on this Joshua Reynolds portrait of Mrs. Tollemache as “Miranda”

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and learn:

Here’s another portrait of a subject transfigured as a historical or fictional character. This time it’s Anna Maria Lewis, wife of Wilbraham Tollemache, the future 6th Earl of Dysart.

She’s painted in a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” She’s the character Miranda at the moment when she sees her future husband Ferdinand for the first time. In fact, since Miranda has grown up on an island, it’s the first time she’s actually seen a young man.

Mrs. Tollemache was 28 years old and a new bride. So it was flattering to be painted as the young lady Miranda, with alabaster skin and rosy cheeks in a gold-trimmed gown.

This portrait was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1774 and it may have inspired works by George Romney and Daniel Gardner. There’s a companion portrait to this one—Lady Louisa Manners—which is of Mrs. Tollemache’s sister-in-law and is also on display in Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough. Guinness purchased both paintings, as well as 69 others, in 1888, a major year for his art collecting.

That’s Caliban, by the way, at Miranda’s feet.

I can’t resist one more, George Romney’s portrait of Emma Hart As “The Spinstress”.

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And from the website:

George Romney is best known for his portraits of Emma Hart. He was smitten by her beauty and over a four-year period, he sketched her hundreds of times.

Even after she left England for Naples, Romney remained obsessed with her, painting her from memory. She was his muse but never his mistress.

She was born Amy Lyon, but she later called herself “Emma Hart.” The daughter of a blacksmith, she worked at what was likely a brothel. At 16, she was illiterate and pregnant.

But that’s when the Hon. Charles Greville, who moved her, her baby and her mother into his villa, took her up. She was his teenaged mistress. And he was the one who commissioned this portrait.

Dutch painters had been painting ladies at spinning wheels. There was often a caged bird included in the scenery, which was an allusion to the woman’s virtue. In this portrait, Emma’s bird may have flown. The only bird present is a hen at her feet.

Susan Jenkins had her own take on these portraits and more, with a beguiling way of talking about art, culture, and history that I can’t capture here but that was thoroughly enchanting.

At 8:00, she released us to see the exhibition on our own, as well as the accompanying exhibition European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle.

This exhibition, focusing on a great collector of the 19th century, also presents the perfect moment to reveal some of the extraordinary collecting of European painting that has been quietly taking place in Seattle over the last 20 years. European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle features 34 paintings, all from local collections, which will share the special exhibition galleries with the 48 paintings from Kenwood House. The paired exhibitions will give visitors the opportunity to observe different approaches to collecting, the history of taste, and how the market has changed since Lord Iveagh began to form his collection in 1887. Most importantly, our visitors will have the chance to see exceptional works of art from right here in Seattle, which, until this moment, has largely overlooked the art of Europe. Featured artists include Vittore Carpaccio, Francisco de Zurbarán, J.A.D. Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Frans Hals.

On one wall of the Kenwood House exhibit are photographs of rooms in the house, allowing you to get a sense of how the paintings, which get their own space in the museum setting, are jumbled together within the house. The Rembrandt self-portrait, for instance, which has a wall to itself at SAM, is quietly sitting above furniture and adjacent to other paintings in London, emerging as a hidden surprise.

Simon happened to be standing by the photos when we looked at them, giving us an opportunity to talk with him some more about the house. Later, as we surveyed the paintings from Seattle collections, we found ourselves with Ian and continued through together, then back to the lobby, where someone was handing out copies of the small, paperback exhibition catalogue. Ian urged us to stick around for more wine and food, which we did.

Most people were gone by now. Two guests were chatting with Susan, we talked more with Ian, then we thanked Susan and headed out.

We have now added Kenwood House to our list of must-sees next time we get to London, not that I have any idea when that will be. But whenever it is, this is what we’ll see:

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