Here in London, there’s no place better for a picnic and peek

Here in London, there’s no place better for a picnic and peek at the art than Kenwood House, a grand old estate bequeathed to the nation by the Earl of Iveagh in 1927. Let’s pack a lunch of cucumber sandwiches and tea and take the Tube to the fashionable Hampstead Heath area of North West London. Maybe we’ll see someone posh, like Kate Middleton. Oh, wait—Kenwood House is closed for renovations until October? I guess we’ll have to see the traveling collection at SAM, which is being presented as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House.

Lord Iveagh was Edward Cecil Guinness (1847–1927), an Irishman who built the family brewery into an empire, took it public, then sold most of his shares to retire and collect art. That was in 1886; and by the time of his death (as the second richest man in Britain), he’d amassed one of those Old Master collections that signified status, wealth, and quality. No Renoirs or Picassos or Van Goghs for him; an early Turner or two was as avant-garde as he got. Guinness collected the big names, who created big canvasses that hung in big halls where you could impress the guests at big parties. Though Guinness was certainly born rich (the brewery was founded in 1759 by his great grandfather), he and his family would always be Irish. Buying houses in London, then outfitting them with lavish furniture and art, only added to his social prominence. He was also a noted philanthropist who built public housing, funded medical research, and even backed an expedition to Antarctica, where you can today climb the 11,000-foot Mount Iveagh.

But we’re here to look at the art, which numbers about 50 works, with Rembrandt’s 1665 self-portrait the centerpiece. (There’s also a companion exhibit, European Masters: The 
Treasures of Seattle, a smaller, somewhat random sampler from SAM and local collectors.) Iveagh was basically in competition with the other industrial/banking tycoons of his day—the Rothschilds, Hearst, Morgan, Frick, etc.—to raid the old treasures of Europe. What they bought had previously been commissioned, for the most part, by the fading aristocracy. (It’s worth remembering that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, only the rich could pay for fine portraiture.) What Iveagh and company valued were tokens of genteel life from before the Industrial Revolution, as we see here: sailing ships and fatted cows, dimpled children in expensive frocks, mistresses dressed up as goddesses and milkmaids, hunting scenes and rural vistas without a smokestack in sight. All of which raises the opposing questions of Are they good? vs. Are they prestigious?

All the Dutch are good to my eye, and it’s worth peering closely at the small series of Rembrandt etchings (a rare example of something the nascent middle class could’ve afforded). Hals, Vermeer, and Van Dyck are worthy companions, and their collective restraint is a rebuke to the English bombast that followed. With the supersized canvasses of Gainsborough and Reynolds, it seems like they were being paid by the inch. Their aristocratic original patrons demanded respect, of course, while the rich Dutch merchants didn’t get the same heroic gloss from Rembrandt and company.

There’s something impressive yet vulgar about Reynolds’ Mrs. Tollemache as “Miranda” (with the hideous Caliban cowering at her feet), the artist and his subject gesturing back to Shakespeare (and her dress to the Greeks), another exercise in borrowed status. Far preferable, from the Seattle sidebar, is Hals’ Portrait of an Unknown Man, painted about a century earlier—though it seems more contemporary than the Reynolds. The unknown sitter’s suit is expensive, but he’s very much a figure of his time—not aspiring to the classical. What character he possesses is left to the artist to convey, and it does come through. Put him in a Patagonia fleece jacket, Kindle in hand, white earbuds dangling, and he could be someone sitting next to you on the bus. Not so with poor embalmed Mrs. Tollemache.

There’s one image of Lord Iveagh in the exhibit, plus some biographical information, but I wish SAM would start explaining more about the provenance of its shows—what things originally cost and why the collectors bought them. Iveagh was no crass parvenu, but a politician and philanthropist. And beer is certainly a cleaner, less destructive business than oil or railroad building (though children of alcoholics may disagree). You might not admire everything in his collection, but he gave it all away. And I’m sure it would look better—and more period-appropriate—at the opulent Kenwood House than in SAM’s uncluttered galleries. A billionaire in today’s dollars, Iveagh would belong in the company of Gates and Allen, not Murdoch and the Koch brothers.

Also, if you’re planning a trip to England this fall, I know just the place to visit. E