London Museum Challenge #17-#18: Fenton House/Osterley Park
August 18, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’ve been to Hampstead quite a few times over the years (although somewhat less so now that I live south of the river), but had somehow never managed to visit Fenton House. I went there the long way round, i.e. via Hampstead Heath Overground (if you feel less athletic, take the Northern Line to Hampstead), over the southern end of the Heath (of which more in a future post) and a ramble through the tangle of quiet streets between the Heath and Hampstead High Street.
In stark contrast to the last few houses I’ve visited, Fenton House isn’t a stately home. It’s the townhouse of a wealthy merchant, built in the 17th century and lived in by members of the same class up to the end of the 19th century. It wasn’t built to impress or intimidate, just to be lived in, so it feels much more intimate than, say, Chiswick House or Syon Park.
One of the quirkier aspects of Fenton House is that, since it was acquired by the National Trust, it’s become a collection of collections: musical instruments (mainly harpsichords, which you can’t touch but which are supplemented by a rather amazing digital keyboard that you can play to experience what several of them sound like), porcelain, Stuart needlework and Camden Town School paintings. It sounds like a bizarre mishmash but is surprisingly harmonious.
The two best bits of Fenton House, in my opinion at least, are outside its walls. The first is the view from the attic balcony: because Hampstead is the highest point in London, you get a stunning vista, which made me think of Ford Madox Brown’s painting of the same, over a century ago. (His view wasn’t ruined by the Shard, though…) The second, and the reason I’d gladly go back on another sunny day, is the garden. It’s as compact as the house, but wander through its several ‘rooms’, surrounded by high walls, and you could be back in the 18th century. They’d even left a few deck chairs dotted around the tiny orchard – I’m hard pressed to think of a more idyllic place in London to while away an afternoon.
Osterley is built on a more massive and splendid scale than Fenton House, and sadly, because (like quite a few other otherwise bucolic places in West London) it’s right on the Heathrow flight path, the illusion of peace is shattered by a low-flying plane with depressing regularity, you have to work a bit harder to think yourself back to another age. But not too much.
Osterley as we know it (the original Tudor house is long gone) was the home of the Childs, founders of one of the oldest banks in England. In 1761 they commissioned Robert Adam to redesign and redecorate and the result is even more awe-inspiring than Syon House. To be fair to Adam, that isn’t so much because his work at Syon was worse, it was because the Duke of Northumberland ran out of money partway through the project and the interior wasn’t completed to Adam’s designs. Moral of the story for designers – given the choice between working for an aristocrat and a banker, go for the banker!
It wasn’t all Adam, though. There’s currently an exhibition on about the Childs’ involvement in the East India Company, and some of the treasures they acquired are now arrayed throughout the house, mostly in the long gallery.
Rather unusually, almost the whole of the ground floor is open to the public, so you get a much stronger sense of what it might have been like to work below stairs in a great house. It was cold and damp so I didn’t linger, although, keen cook that I am, I was impressed by the kitchen…
The best bit, though, was the garden. (Why do I even bother saying this anymore? The best bit of virtually any great house is the garden.) The Tudor walled garden (including an ornamental vegetable garden) was impressive, but even better was the many acres of woodland and meadow, with some impressively ancient trees (many of them more than 200 years old) that you could easily imagine having been inhabited by otherworldly creatures.
Dr Johnson was right when he said that ‘there is in London all that life can afford.’ I may have travelled there by Tube, but I felt as if I’d had a day out in the countryside.
Tally: 18 down, 5 to go