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The house that George built

A new exhibition takes a peep behind the walls of artist George Romney’s house in Hampstead

02 June, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

William T Waits’ 1950s painting of 5 Holly Bush Hill, the house built by artist George Romney

SHE posed nude for him and, dressed in many guises, was the subject of some 60 portraits. Such was her elegance and beauty, intelligence and wit that Emma Hart became the magical muse for George Romney, who became the society painter of his day.

Whether they had a romance has not been recorded. But those who know their 18th-century history are aware that Emma Hart, actress, dancer, model, confident, became Emma Hamilton, otherwise the mistress of Admiral Nelson, victor over the French at Trafalgar.

And that if you walk up Holly Bush Hill there stands Romney’s House, one of Hampstead’s iconic properties, which the acclaimed and forever financially troubled Romney built as his studio and gallery in 1797-8, a Grade I-listed building with a unique history of its own.

George Romney

The old LCC commemorated Romney with a blue plaque on it back in 1908, probably not knowing the house, designed by Samuel Bunce, cost Romney a fortune almost comparable to today’s crazy Hampstead property prices.

Romney, then living in Cavendish Square, bought the original coach house and stable for £700, the equivalent of £65,380 in 2015. The subsequent building works cost Romney £2,733 – otherwise £255,264 in 2015 – the later “whimsical” wooden arcade extension itself selling for £357, again the equivalent £33,344.

But long after Romney died in 1802, aged 67, the house he immortalised has had an added remarkable history over three centuries. And now it is to be the subject of an exciting new exhibition telling its full story and due to open at Burgh House, Hampstead, on June 21.

An Assembly Rooms poster

Co-curated by former Romney’s House resident Marilyn Mountford (née Faraday), Behind Closed Doors: A Biography of Romney’s House will focus on the residence of the acclaimed and troubled artist George Romney, and then it will look at each of the house’s significant eras thereafter, through artwork, objects and installations.

Romney built a great house and studio in place of the original building to exhibit his Grand Tour finds and his own artworks, an effort that almost made him bankrupt.

On display in the exhibition will be an original book of sketches by Romney, kindly loaned by the Victorian & Albert Museum, which may have been undertaken in his Hampstead studio.

Romney sold the house to a Mr and Mrs Rundell in 1801. Four years later Maria Rundell went on to publish the most popular recipe book of the early 19th century – she called it A New System of Domestic Cookery, which included home remedies.

In Mrs Rundell’s wake the house was bought by a body of trustees who turned it into the Hampstead Assembly Rooms. This became a centre for concerts and public events, notably the venue where the artist John Constable delivered his celebrated lectures on the history of landscape painting in the 1830s.

The Assembly Rooms were also home to the Conservative Hampstead Constitutional Club in the 1880s when Sir Henry Holland and the banker Edward Hoare were the MPs for Hampstead.

Then the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, designer of Italianate village Portmeirion in North Wales, lived in the house from 1929 until the 1940s.

One of George Romney’s portraits of Lady Hamilton

Williams-Ellis also served on several government committees concerned with design and conservation and was instrumental in setting up the British National Parks after 1945.

He wrote and broadcast extensively on architecture, design and the preservation of the rural landscape.

He sold the house in 1948, to the musician Raymond Russell for £10,000 and it became the ideal home for Russell’s collection of harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments, as well as a perfect concert venue.

Finally, Romney’s House was purchased by the Faradays, owners of Star Sound Studios, in 1952 and who lived there until 1994. It is thought that The Adventures of Dan Dare were recorded at the house, broadcast throughout the 1950s.

This is the first exhibition that Burgh House has undertaken that has examined the history of one building: its fabric; the lives of its residents; and its place within the local community.

An ambitious and exciting exhibition, Behind Closed Doors will offer a rare glimpse into the life of one of Hampstead’s best-known buildings.

“Romney’s House is an absolute treasure trove of discovery – so many creative people have lived or visited over the centuries,” says Burgh House Museum curator Rebecca Lodge.

“Architecturally unusual, the house is a local landmark and we are delighted to be able to unpack its history in a visually exciting display.”

Co-curator Marilyn Mountford, author of a history of Romney’s House due to be published later this year, adds: “Nobody was more surprised than I to find that our somewhat ramshackle home had such a prestigious history.”

Behind Closed Doors: A Biography of Romney’s House runs from June 21 to October 15 at Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, NW3 1LT. For details call 020 7431 0144 or visit www.burghhouse.org.uk

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