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Helena Bonham Carter by Derry Moore, copyright Derry Moore

Hampstead: A Picturesque Neighbourhood

21 February 2014 Charlie Kenber

“We’re known understandably so as the country house people, and I think we’re trying to challenge that assumption a little bit.”

From this month the National Trust’s Fenton House is exhibiting thirty photographs of some of the most recognisable cultural icons to have lived in Hampstead. An area with a remarkably strong track record of hosting leading artists and thinkers, the exhibition celebrates Hampstead in the beautiful settings of the 17th Century house. We caught up with Joe Watson from the National Trust…

London Calling: First of all, how did the exhibition come about? Where did the idea come from?

Joe Watson: The idea has been around certainly for a year and a half. One of the important things that the National Trust sees itself as doing is connecting people with special and unique spaces.

Recently we’ve been trying to construe that in a slightly broader sense, so instead of just thinking very specifically what might be special about somewhere like Fenton House, we’ve started to think: what’s special about Hampstead village and that whole area, and why has it been this hotbed of creative talent? It’s always had this intellectual and cultural elite who have lived there. So we started to explore that a little bit with the National Portrait Gallery.

In only thirty images – which is all we could fit in the space that we had – we wanted to really explore the full range of different people, so it really does range from Edward Elgar through to Boy George and George Michael, and various other really interesting people right from the 19th century through to the late 20th century.

LC: Presumably that also reflects the juxtaposition of placing modern images in a seventeenth century house…

JW: That’s right, absolutely. Fenton House for us is curious because it doesn’t tell a very strong story of one family. In fact it’s a house that has been lived in by more than thirty different families. People have moved in and moved on, and that’s very unusual for us, because most of our houses have been built and lived in by one family – a sort of dynasty. That makes Fenton rather unique for the National Trust.

LC: Why do you think Hampstead has always attracted such talent? Is it the hill?

JW: Who knows! I’m sure the hill plays its part. One of our founders, Octavia Hill, was absolutely crucial to campaigning for the Heath at various points when it was threatened and making sure that it was protected. As indeed was one of the former residents of Fenton House – so there are nice links there. I think that presence of green space and fresh air, the sense of being both in the city but actually slightly outside it.

Also simply doing what we now call networking in this slightly cynical way, but which actually is just human interaction. People have lived there and connected with those around them – and they just also happen to be interesting and creative people.

LC: Do you have any favourites amongst the photographs?

JW: There’s a wonderful very pensive photograph of Ben Nicholson looking into a mirror standing by a mantelpiece. It’s very beautifully composed and speaks volumes about him and his work.

LC: For those who might not know it, how would you describe the House?

JW: This particular exhibition takes place in the largest room in the house: the dining room. It was built in 1686 and beautifully situated on a sloping site with a really stunning walled garden of about two acres, which is a real gem. It has London’s oldest orchard – this incredible 300-year old orchard, a kitchen garden and a beautiful rose garden and formal lawn. The house itself is set up to be quite a domestic arrangement of collections – so it’s not like stepping into a museum it is like stepping into someone’s house, but actually the collections themselves are incredibly important and really stunning when you stand and pause.

We’ve brought in this photographic collection of Hampstead people, Hampstead elites and notables, and we’re placing it among what is a collection of collections really at Fenton House.

LC: Clearly the exhibition will appeal to those in Hampstead – do you think there’s also something for a wider London audience?

JW: Definitely! These are people that everyone will know. I will defy anyone to visit and not feel a connection with at least one of the thirty people that have been selected. They’re such an incredible range of creative and intellectual people who in a very real sense have in their own ways all of them changed the world. They’ve all made an enormous creative contribution to our society, not just Hampstead, not just London, but to the world.

LC: For many the National Trust has a certain image – how important is it for you to try and change that?

JW: Yes of course there’s the classic view of the National Trust member which is probably a bit Mrs. Slocombe-ish or something like that! We’re very realistic that London is a younger audience. We’ve been hit fairly full on in the face with the statistic that something like 70% of Londoners are between the ages of 25 and 40. We want our places to reflect London and feel like they’re in and of London and not as though they’re country houses that are slightly removed.

We’re known understandably so as the country house people, and I think we’re trying to challenge that assumption a little bit.

Hampstead’s Village People: Portraits of Cultural Icons is on display at Fenton House from Saturday 1st March until Saturday 29th June 2014. It is open Weds-Sun, with admission starting at £3. Further information available here.

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