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Friday, 12 November 2010

Fenton House.


I have no idea quite how I failed to visit the 17th century Fenton House in Hampstead before this year. I think in part it is due to its relative proximity to my beloved Kenwood House in the neighbouring village of Highgate and when faced with a choice of places to visit, Kenwood will always take precedence. But the prime cause is that I had completely misjudged what it housed. I knew Fenton House had a fine collection of early keyboard instruments. Indeed, the Partridge regularly goes along to play them, as can anyone who has passed the requisite audition. In my imagination I had pictured the house as being empty save for a single dusty room filled with various keyboards, not an enticing prospect for someone who would only be allowed to look at the instruments. Actually, the keyboards are only a part of Fenton House’s unique appeal. It also has a small art, china and furniture collection and is furnished in the style of its last owner Katherine, Lady Binning, who bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust in 1952.

In recent weeks I have been to Fenton House twice. On the first occasion the Partridge wanted to go along to its annual Apple Day. Its original walled gardens have survived the centuries intact and the kitchen garden provides a small orchard of apple trees, the fruit of which was on sale. Unfortunately the weather when we arrived was atrocious and I feared the stalls on the lawn would close early. I managed to make my way to the orchard and around the grounds at the back of the house but it was too inclement to linger long. I returned a week or two later as a prelude to meeting up with Mandip to see the film Budrus at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead. This time the sun was shining brightly allowing me to appreciate the garden and grounds at leisure.

Although the brick house was built in the late 1680s, it derives its name from a merchant called Philip Fenton who bought the house in 1793 and made it his family home. When I approached the house from the South Front my way was barred by a pair of ornate ironwork gates decorated with the initials of Joshua Gee and his wife Anna who first owned the house in 1706. Various members of the Gee family continued to live there for the next 50 years. Whereas James Fenton traded in the Baltic, Joshua was a linen and later pig-iron merchant who focused on the American colonies. At one point he is said to have entered into partnership with a certain Augustine Washington, whose son George became the first President of the United States of America. Joshua Gee was part of a small group of men who banded together to free fellow Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, from debtor’s jail in the early 1700s. They offered Pennsylvania itself as surety.

The avenue of trees that lead up to the South Front cannot be accessed through the locked ironwork gates. Instead Phillip Fenton erected a colonnaded porch on the West Front to serve as the main entrance.

Having passed through the entrance hall I made my way to the downstairs dining room. The latter is actually made up of two rooms, the original dining room and the morning room, knocked into one.  On the apricot coloured walls are several paintings bequeathed to the National Trust by the actor Peter Barkworth. I once dated a French financier who bore an uncanny and somewhat unsettling resemblance to the late actor, although they were not related. Perhaps being French, the financier insisted on taking me to a restaurant on our first date and paying for the meal himself. As well as having impeccable manners, he also was highly intelligent, having gained a number of degrees from various prestigious European universities. I was very impressed when he told me that a group of colleagues were going to race skidoos within the artic circle. It made my own memories of work organised softball games in Hyde Park seem very tame by comparison.

The dining room held a 1770 Broadwood harpsichord and a 1774 Broadwood square piano. Whenever I stay at the Partridge’s childhood home I contrive to play on their 1910 Broadwood grand piano in the music room. I much prefer not to be overheard. Thus, despite having played the grand piano on the BBC no less, I could not bring myself to try out the modern electronic keyboard in the corner of the room, which enabled visitors to discover for themselves how different types of keyboards sounded. I did not regret my decision when a young boy came in immediately after me and played the keyboard with consummate skill.

The only oil painting in the room that took my fancy was that of two small boys by the English artist William Nicholson. What is striking about the painting is that both small boys are dressed in skirts. I believe the painting dates either from the later19th or early 20th century. I had not realised the custom of breeching, that is putting boys into trousers having kept them in gowns or dresses for the first few years of their lives, had continued for so long. I have seen many a picture in the past of what I took to be a pretty little girl who, it later transpired, was a future king of England.

The porcelain room houses ceramics bequeathed to the National Trust by Katherine Binning. I know little about such Meissen figurines. My knowledge has been gleaned in the main from a plot by Agatha Christie for “The Affair at the Victory Ball”, which featured  her Belgian hero “Poirot”  and various other characters dressing up in costumes from the Commedia dell'arte, inspired by a collection of Meissen figurines owned by one of the murder suspects. In addition one of my favourite novels, Utz by Bruce Chatwin, has the eponymous hero being an avid collector of Meissen figurines in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Personally, such pieces leave me cold. Thus it is best that the priceless ceramics are kept under lock and key lest I be tempted to do an “Utz” with them. This room contains a harpsichord on loan from Windsor Castle and dating from 1612.

The Oriental Room was more to my taste. The Chinese ceramics on display dated from the 10th century through to the 17th. I especially liked the small collection of snuff bottles as they reminded me of items I have been tempted to buy in the past. Again, I loved the elegamt décor of this room which served as Lady Binning’s library when she lived in the house from the 1930s to the 1950s. So very different from the flamboyant ostentation of the King’s Room or the Ballroom at Knole for example.

The sturdy 17th century staircase in the hall sweeps past a floor to ceiling window overlooking the South facing gardens. There were various paintings on the wall but I have to confess I did not pay them much attention as they were, for the most part, from the 18th century and therefore of limited interest to me.

The small Green Room on the first floor had a portrait of King James II above the fireplace when he was still only the Duke of York. The more I discover about the lives of the Stuart kings and their courtiers, the more I dislike them. This is despite having had an unfortunate crush on King Charles II as a schoolgirl; I say unfortunate as he became a template for the kind of men I was inexorably drawn to in later years.

By contrast I had a particular interest in the contents of The Rockingham Room, owing to the 17th century needlework on display. Taking centre stage was a 17th century casket decorated with needlework panels, probably worked by a young girl, depicting scenes from the Bible. It immediately called to mind my own discovery of a 17th century embroidered cover for a bible in the British Library, when I had worked there. To think I once handled the kind of needlework I could now only view through panes of protective glass. This room contained a harpsichord from the 1760s. I was awestruck when I realised the virginals in the adjoining closet dated from 1540, a mere 4 years after Anne Boleyn’s death. It had never occurred to me before then that the Partridge had been allowed to play on instruments of such antiquity. The virginals themselves looked to be as light and as readily transferable as a modern keyboard.

Unusually for a 17th century house, most of the principal family rooms, including the Rockingham Room, originally had small windowless closets attached  in which close stools or chamber pots were kept for the family and guests to relieve themselves. Normally the ladies of the house would have retired to the privacy of their own bedchambers and the men would have freely made use of a chamber pot kept in a cupboard in the dining room, when the ladies had left their presence of course.

The Blue Porcelain Room has been styled to look as it would have done when Lady Binning used it as a bedroom. With its cream coloured wooden panelling, the large tapestry above the bed and the bakelite telephone wall, in my eyes it seemed the perfect bedroom. The room boasts an 18th century spinet and 17th century Venetian virginals. When I had visisted Fenton House with the Partridge, she had been perplexed by the subject of one 16th century oil painting in the bedroom, It showed a man at prayer with two looming figures in the immediate background. Given her regular church attendance, I expressed surprise that she had not recognised the depiction of St Christopher carrying the Christ child on his shoulder.

The yellow Drawing Room contains yet more china figurines in display cabinets. I admired the elegant secretaire (an enclosed writing desk) its daintiness contrasting favourably with the more robust Stuart furniture I had witnessed at Knole. However, it was the Elizabethan dolly bag worked in silver and gold thread that really caught my eye as I mused on what the high born Elizabethan woman would have carried around with her in the days before mobile phones and lipstick. Unlike me, with a household full of servants she would not have flown into a blind panic desperately seraching for her keys whenever she set foot out of doors.

The attic floor lacks the intricate panelling of the family rooms below. Nonetheless, the rooms are still very attractive in their own right though necessarily somewhat utilitarian. When it was used as servants’ quarters in more recent centuries, the butler and housekeeper had fireplaces in their chambers. The poor maids were denied such comforts and no doubt froze in the depth of winter. I caught sight of a small 20th century electric bell panel for summoning servants from this floor to the family rooms below. The main drawback of the attic rooms is that their windows were too small. In compensation they commanded an astonishing view over London taking in, for example, King Cross station and the Millennium Dome at Greenwich amongst other far flung landmarks.

Yet more stringed instruments were on display including a painted 16th or 17th century Italian harpsichord. To my mind, this was the most visually attractive of all the keyboards in the house. One of the attic rooms has been given over to restoration of the keyboard collection and visitors could view works in progress. On my second visit the guide said that routine maintenance would be carried out on all the instruments over the winter months when the house was closed to the public. He opined that people would not be interested in going along to the house during the dark dank winter. I begged to disagree and was thankful that I had taken the opportunity of a repeat visit towards the end of the season.


When I had first visited the gardens I was battling against the elements although the weather did clear up somewhat in the afternoon. I had no such problem when I returned to the house a fortnight later.  Unfortunately I was not free to stroll over the lawn as they had cordoned it off to recover from the effects of the annual Apple Day. That meant I was not able to get up close to the intriguing 18th century statue of a man in the garden. 






Fortunately I could still perambulate through the sunken garden and into the small orchard and kitchen garden at the back.
Fenton House Gardener's house

It seems the head gardener lives in the cottage, for even today a garden of such size requires daily maintenance. I popped the requisite amount of coins into an honesty box and bought a small oregano plant to give to Mandip later, as she had much admired the herb on a previous visit Brimstone Butterfly Towers.
Fenton House is well worth a visit if one happens to be in the vicinity of Hampstead High Street and, as with Eastbury Manor House and Charlton House, it is a pity that it is not better known.