Russian Life Histories in Kenwood House

Posted in Places

There is a graceful white-stone mansion, Kenwood House, beautifully located on a slope in the midst of a huge park on Hampstead Heath, north London. This House is of special interest for Russians.

The House was built in the 17th century and entirely re-modelled in the neo-classical style by Robert Adam, the eminent Scottish architect, after having been acquired by William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield in 1754.

This House is of special interest for Russians as it was inhabited by our compatriot Grand Duke Michael Romanov (1861-1929) who rented it for his family from 1910 to 1917. Michael married Sofie, Countess of Merenberg and granddaughter of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, for love. Later she obtained the title of Countess de Torby. This marriage was a morganatic one therefore the couple had to leave Russia in 1891. After spending some time in England Grand Duke Michael and his wife decided to settle in Kenwood, and they moved in on 1st March 1910. They actually signed a tenancy agreement for renting out a fully furnished house for a period of 21 years with a yearly rent of £2,200.

After they moved into Kenwood the house became their family home where their three children were brought up and grandiose receptions were held. The luxurious interior of Kenwood of that time was photographed and those photos can now be seen by visitors of Kenwood in the upper hall, in the room for breakfasts and in the musical room. There is still a portrait of the Grand Duke by Galeoto in the latter.

The Grand Duke was an active participant in the local social life and supported charity. In 1912 he became President of the Hampstead General Hospital and the following year he presented the hospital with an ambulance, the first one in London outside the City of London.

When the First World War began a military hospital was set up at Kenwood at the suggestion of the Grand Duke and of Lord Mansfield. In November 1915 a mobile brigade of anti-aircraft gunners, under the command of Captain Rawlinson of the Royal Navy, was based in Kenwood’s stable yard. German troops were bombing London from zeppelins and the anti-aircraft gunners’ brigade, stationed at Kenwood, was created for the purpose of protecting London against the German bombardments. To defend against the nightly raids, weapon systems were placed at the highest point in Hampstead Heath, among other places. Captain Rawlinson sincerely admitted in his later memoirs what a pleasure it was to have breakfast with the Grand Duke and his daughters after nights of the most intensive air bombardments. In August 1916 the brigade was relocated to Norfolk to try to prevent the zeppelins from penetrating the country when they reached the British coast.

Several months later, in November 1916, a reception on the occasion of the younger daughter of the Grand Duke, Comptess Nadya’s marriage with Prince George Battenberg, was held in Kenwood House. Among the guests were King George and Queen Mary and other members of the royal family. The following year, on 20th July 1917, the older daughter of the Grand Duke, Comptess Ziya, married Sir Harold Vernher in the Royal Chapel of St James Palace. According to Tatler magazine, “members of the royal family and numerous nobles” were present at the wedding.

The Grand Duke and Comptess de Torby left Kenwood House shortly before the wedding of their older daughter and thus terminated the family’s residence in the house. Now that the future of both his daughters in English society was properly secured, the Grand Duke thought it appropriate to take up residence in central London, in Cambridge Gate near Regents Park.

Kenwood House preserves in its archives documents concerning the lives of the members of the Russian imperial family and of the descendants of the Pushkin family. It is no coincidence that in our time Kenwood House is a place for holding chamber concerts - evenings of the Russian classical music called “Russian Nights” with participation of famous Russian musicians who have managed to revive the atmosphere of high society and the Russian spirit of the Grand Duke’s evenings when the Duke’s guests were sitting in the Orangery, filled with the light of chandeliers, and were listening to Russian music.

Information provided by Kenwood House museum
Editor Natalya Ageeva
©Russian presence UK project

First publication: Russian presence in the UK. 2009