I have been on only one tour in London thus far, and it may not surprise you to learn that it took me through an area our tour guide called “legal London.”  It is in the heart of the city, and the buildings reek of old cases and serious, bewigged barristers.  We walked through Lincoln’s Inn, where young men used to bury their heads in books in the hopes of gaining favor with the powers that be, where barristers “took chambers.”  We went into the hall of Middle Temple, stepping back in time.  We braved the metal detectors of the Royal Courts of Justice.  It made me want to curl up with a copy of  Dicken’s “Hard Times” or a boxed set of “Rumpole of the Bailey.”

A couple of friends came through last week with their list of things to see in the brief time they were here.  Jean is a dedicated fan of Vermeer, and, although I was not able to get her into Buckingham Palace to see the one owned by the Queen, we could see “The Guitar Player.”  It is located in an English Heritage Property called Kenwood House.  The house is one of those palatial estates that looks as though it belongs out in the country, and it was in the country when it was built. Now it is on the outskirts of an inner suburb, Hampstead Heath.

The original house was probably built by John Bill, the King’s Printer, but from 1712 on Kenwood belonged to a succession of Scots. In 1754, it was sold to a rising young lawyer by the name of William Murray. An architect named Robert Adams began extensive renovations on the house in the 1760’s.

William Murray was the fourth son of the fifth Viscount Stormont, one of eleven children. His father was a noted Jacobite and had been imprisoned for supporting the cause.  It was obvious in grammar school that Murray was very bright, so it was suggested by the schoolmaster that he attend Westminster School in London.  The boy left home at the age of thirteen and never returned.  He flourished at school and was made a King’s Scholar in 1719, allowing him to be accepted into Christ Church, Oxford in 1724. At Oxford, the young Scot became fluent in French and Latin.

William settled in London, and with the help of a few influential patrons, he set himself up at Lincoln’s Inn to study law, acquire clients and argue cases. He fell in love with Chloe, a beautiful girl he met through his friend, Alexander Pope, but his prospects were so dismal that her parents refused the match.

In time, Chloe’s parents may have regretted their decision to marry off their daughter to a country squire. The Scot with the checkered background would go on to become Attorney General, Chief Justice of King’s Bench, and the first Earl of Mansfield. He would become one of the most important men in England.

Murray would gain renown as a judge, reforming mercantile law, reducing religious discrimination, improving court procedures and establishing a precedent that made slavery illegal in England. This decision, which promptly freed some 15,000 slaves, may have been triggered by his own family situation. He and his wife had no children, and they had taken in two great-nieces, one of whom was of mixed race. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle. The terms of Murray’s will greatly favored the other niece, but he did make it clear that Dido was to remain free.

Despite Murray’s place in history, his intimate connection to Kenwood House has been overshadowed by a bequest of significance.  In 1925, Lord Iveagh, otherwise known as Edward Cecil Guinness, purchased the estate.  Lord Iveagh inherited and greatly increased the family fortune in the brewing business.  He died before his collection of “Old Masters” were installed, but they now grace the rooms at Kenwood House.  Rembrandt, Hals, Van Dyke, Gainsborough, and the unassuming little Vermeer.

Despite the loss of its entire contents at auction in 1922, some of the original furnishings have been restored to the estate. In 1929, an Act of Parliament was passed to safeguard the house and the art collection.  We are fortunate to be able to visit it today for free and enjoy the lovely surroundings.  The guides are very knowledgeable, and we learned what it meant to be caught “red handed,” and how dangerous it was to be well-to-do in London at that time.

On June 6, 1780, Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square in London was trashed and burnt by Protestant mob in reaction to a decision by his court to protect the rights of Catholics.  Later that day, Kenwood itself was threatened by the mob, but a detachment of light horse was dispatched to protect it.  I am grateful to our guest for dragging me out to the suburbs.  It was a fascinating glimpse at a great urban home built before the towering trees were cut to build our house in Nova Scotia.

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