Although named after Philip Ibbetson Fenton, a Yorkshireman who made his fortune as a Riga merchant exporting Russian produce to London in the 18th century, Fenton House, in London’s affluent Hampstead, has been shaped by a rich and varied succession of owners and inhabitants since its original inception in 1696. Constructed by master bricklayer William Eades with the intention of selling the property immediately after completion, the house has since been occupied by a string of prosperous middle-class families, each leaving their own mark on the structure, interiors, and sweeping formal gardens.
In the early 19th century Fenton House was acquired by the property’s last private resident Lady Katherine Binning, the niece of George Salting, a Victorian art connoisseur who left most of his vast art and porcelain collection to the National Gallery, the British Museum, and the V&A on his death in 1909. The residue of Salting’s estate went to Lady Binning, whose own venerable collection of art and antiquities was almost as enviable as that of her uncle. Fenton House became not only a home for Lady Binning, but a showcase for her fine collection of furniture, European and oriental china, and works of art, including a surprising variety of paintings, as well as tapestries and other needlework.
Upon her death in 1952, Lady Binning bequeathed to the National Trust the house and its contents. However, the elegant building and its lavish art collection are perhaps overshadowed by the impressive collection of early keyboard instruments, donated to the National Trust some fifteen years earlier by Major George Benton Fletcher, an artist, book illustrator, writer, and avid traveller. Fenton’s enviable collection of virginals, clavichords, harpsichords, and spinets now grace the rooms in Fenton House, complementing the period furnishings perfectly.
Hampstead, an area in northern London known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical, and literary associations, is one of the city’s wealthiest districts and is dotted with elegant striking homes and an adjacent sprawling greenspace known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, a vast expanse of wild woodland and meadows spanning 320 hectares lies at the heart of the area and tucked along a nearby residential street rests Fenton House. Both are only mere kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of the city yet feel as though they rest deep in the countryside.
The weather in London is unseasonably hot, and thoughts of travelling on the Tube, the city’s unairconditioned underground railway network, are less than desirable. Yet, with our newly acquired National Trust memberships, and a couple of sandwiches and requisite bottles of icy water, we make the hour-long journey from our neighbourhood in west London to the historical Hampstead train station. With the sun making known its relentless presence we try in vain to move quickly on our way, searching for shade, yet the unfamiliar scenery entices us to veer off track slightly to inspect the quaint details that surround. A shocking pink doorway, boarded either side by vibrant summer blooms in pretty clay pots, has me dreaming of a life behind that welcoming entryway, and I feel compelled to follow the winding alleyway in search of other possible picturesque scenes. Yet our destination awaits.
Fenton House, only a short, gentle ascending walk from Hampstead station is immediately evident by imposing iron gates, their golden flourishes gleam resplendent in the midday sun. The symmetrical south frontage and the long and narrow drive beyond was once the property’s main entrance, but in the early 19th century James Fenton, who inherited the property after the death of his father Philip, built a colonnade on the east front and moved the entrance to its present location.
We arrive quite early for our allotted booking time, which includes a short yet informative talk by a Trust volunteer, and happily spend twenty minutes wandering the extensive gardens. We are compelled to follow the gravel pathway leading underneath a well clipped box hedge for there is no other way through to the rear of the property. The temperature drops drastically as we enter the enveloping darkness, and we linger below the embrace of the hedge momentarily before heading back out into the rear garden.
The delightful walled garden is quite large by London standards and includes fine displays of roses, topiary, an orchard, and a kitchen garden. Unlike a simple lawn with flower borders, the garden is not automatically revealing. The space is a broad succession of contrasting garden rooms with a gravel pathway that beckons you to follow. You must make your way through the garden to discover the different viewpoints and surprise vistas. Though relatively formal in design, the garden has a sense of wildness about it. Huge cascading mounds of purple Salvia spill out over the pathway brushing against your legs as you pass by, throwing up their pungent herbal scent into the warm summer air. The effect bestows a sense of playfulness to the space with its clipped topiaries and symmetrical design and adds wonderful flashes of colour throughout the mass of greenery.
The flower borders that edge the gravel pathway are informal and carefree in their planting. With the exuberance of summer’s warmth, the plants have vigorously intermingled with their blossoming neighbours creating a harmonious, yet slightly dishevelled, display of colour and form. Big blowsy dahlias are partly obscured by their own large leaves, and the nib-shaped petals glow halo-bright in the dappled golden light. A spray of unruly daisies with pale periwinkle petals and bright yellow centres look poised to bolt from the confines of the border yet seem hesitant to stray too far from the safety of the neatly clipped box hedge that flanks the bed.
With minutes to spare we hurry back to the front of the house where our guide Will regales us with the history and tales of Fenton House. A little richer in knowledge than we were before we are led inside via the original south facing entrance into one of two elegant Drawing Rooms. We thank our host and are left to meander through the interior at our own pace. While many of the other visitors linger downstairs, we take the opportunity to explore the second floor while it is still relatively empty. The heavy wooden staircase is lavishly wallpapered in a hand painted monochromatic botanical print which forms a striking backdrop for the dramatic 17th and 18th century oil paintings that accompany us as we make our way upstairs.
The bright harmonic tones of the harpsichord fill the house with the melody of another era and chaperone us on our way. The beloved keyboard instruments from Major Fletcher’s collection can now be found inside every room in the house. We soon find Richard, an elderly gentleman and local Hampstead resident, perched in front of a 16th century heavily ornamented harpsichord playing from sheets of period music and happily ensconced in his role as voluntary maestro at Fenton House. I ask Richard if I might take a photo of him while he plays and he is more than happy to oblige. With his newly captive audience of two he enthusiastically explains the intricacies of the instrument before him. Dan and I become captured by Richard’s exuberance and enthusiasm and feel honoured when he insists on taking us from room to room while he demonstrates the distinct sounds and beautifully crafted details of each precious instrument. Though exquisite as the antique keyboards are, it was Richard’s joy and warmth that was the real treasure to be found at Fenton House.
Lady Binning’s impressive collection of art and collectables are a testament to her discerning eye for quality and craftmanship. Wonderful examples of fine needlepoint boxes and panels are displayed on walls and behind the safety of glass cases, and can be found arranged throughout the house. Museum quality Chinese ceramics and fine porcelain ornaments are amassed on custom built shelves lining the upstairs Drawing Room whose tall picture windows framed in sweeping floral curtains allow a passing glimpse into the outside garden below.
With lunchtime looming we make our way back outside, heading towards the 300-year-old apple orchard where we find shade amongst the 30 varieties of flourishing apple trees. The perfect tranquil spot to enjoy our sandwiches and cool down before the hot train journey home.