Ever since I first saw a photo showing the view of London from Kenwood House, at the top of Hampstead Heath, I've wanted to visit it. For various reasons (most of them variations on the theme of laziness), I never got round to it until a few weeks ago.
The view is as lovely as advertised – a downward sweep of green, lent an Arcadian feel by the tall, ancient trees that surround it. The only hint of modernity comes from the distant, graceless towers of the financial district. A Georgian villa built on a human scale, Kenwood itself dates from the early 17th century. Its most notable owner was William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who bought it in 1754 and promptly commissioned Scottish architect, Robert Adam, to remodel it. Adam's most notable addition was the library. I'm no architectural expert, but even I could see that it's a stunning room, with domed alcoves at either end flanked by neo-classical columns.
The house's most recent claim to fame was its role in the 2013 film 'Belle'. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Mansfield's nephew, born in the West Indies to Maria Belle, a slave. Upon Maria's death, Mansfield took her into his care as companion to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido was well educated, lived as a free gentlewoman and worked as Mansfield's secretary in his role as lord chief justice. She became an heiress upon his death and married, running Kenwood for many years. Her status is apparent in the portrait of her and Elizabeth, which currently hangs in Scone Palace and depicts her as her cousin's equal. The film about her life sketches in the blanks in a sometimes melodramatic way, but is worth seeing as it reminds us how much we patronise our forebears by assuming them to be indomitably intolerant in every circumstance.
Leaving Kenwood, we passed Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx and Jeremy Beadle are buried (not together) and dropped into the Angel Inn for a drink. As we headed back to the tube station, we found ourselves passing The Grove, a row of beautiful 17th-century townhouses. George Michael lived here and his house wasn't difficult to spot. More than a year after his death, it was the one with masses of flowers and candles outside. Several fans were laying bouquets. Speaking to a couple of them, I discovered they'd come all the way from Australia.
I've always loved George Michael's music – not the frantic, hedonistic dance tracks, which I always found a bit forced, but the sweet, soulful ballads, full of yearning and emotional honesty. Frank Sinatra, who knew a thing or two, called him the most beautiful ballad singer of his generation. Yet he was pilloried in the tabloid press for being an early voice of opposition to the Iraq war and an enemy to Murdoch's influence on British politics. Most of the attacks, of course, took the form of homophobia.
So my afternoon in Hampstead, enjoyable as it was, prompted some unexpected reflections. Dido Belle met more tolerance than you would expect in the 18th century. George Michael was hounded as a gay man in the 21st century, partly for political reasons. Have we really come as far as we imagine?
Return to ambit homepage