Jeffrey Sawtell makes the case for Kenwood’s art collection. Some works, he argues, are superior to the National Gallery
01 August, 2019 — By Jeffrey Sawtell
Kenwood’s painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
AMONG Camden’s art treasures none is more important than English Heritage’s acquisition of Rembrandt’s self-portrait (1662) at Kenwood. It is by far our best example of his work, far better than his selfie in the National Gallery.
It’s an image of the artist at his most testy, having been wrought asunder after the Nightwatch scandal, as he’d painted the local grandees – the bourgeois burghers – a bit the worse for wear after a night on the drink.
Hence he was reduced to poverty and in need of work.
Look at that fearless face! Van Rijn was clearly a lad, enjoyed himself thoroughly, another like Caravaggio, who never shirked a fight when honour was at stake.
Stare into his jewel-like eyes: melancholy doesn’t quite sum up a painted pain of a man who appears to stare through your eyes into your soul.
All his selfies contradict the concept of an image of ageing and mental retardation, like a reversal of the portrait of Dorian Gray.
Dressed as a worker and brandishing the tools of his trade, he stands before two circles symbolising colliding worlds, as if confronting his critics: “I’m back and ready for work,”
He was an artist who’d previously made money painting portraits and still lifes. He had invested wisely in a country under siege as the Reformation proceeded apace. It wasn’t a wise move to portray the bourgeoisie as drunk in charge of the local militia, an unforgivable act. They ensured he’d never receive any future patronage on the scale he had enjoyed.
You can sense his belligerent defiance in the face of such vindictiveness.
Kenwood’s treasures also include one of the 29 Vermeers in existence and Thomas Gainsborough’s problematic portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray, the daughter of Kenwood owner Lord Hamilton, a judge who played a prominent role in abolishing slavery,
Kenwood’s Rembrandt self-portrait
However, while it supposedly illustrated an easy compatibility between the two ladies, it’s clear from their attire that the white woman is pushing the other away. It is not entirely amicable.
Though listed as Anon, it’s clearly by Thomas Gainsborough – an artist noted for social commentary, who painted property. Is he suggesting the more obvious relationship between owner and slave?
And alongside our very own modest JMW Turner’s Iveagh Seascape, there’s the less well-known, but very important Joseph Wright of Derby, a favourite of mine whose bird fluttering in an Oxygen tank in the National Gallery reminds us all of the fragility of life.
Another favourite is George Romney’s portrait of Lady Hamilton, the woman scorned by polite society as “Nelson’s whore” for providing her lover Horatio with much-needed sensual refreshment to sustain him through the Battle of Trafalgar. Surely she should be included on that Fourth Plinth to remind us of her and other women abused by the hypocritical ruling class for not conforming to their dubious standards
Nelson left her a dowry. Witnessed by his shipmates he died, but was denied by those who supported his widow, a woman who scorned our working-class hero for loving a woman of his own class in flagrant disregard of bourgeois values.
Surely, a woman who deserved to be painted by Romney, the master of impropriety?
• Jeff Sawtell is former Art Editor of the Morning Star