Pets and musical instruments in north London

CLAVICHORDS, HARPSICHICHORDS, VIRGINALS, and other historical musical instruments can be viewed whilst walking through the rooms of Fenton House in Hampstead. When I first visited the house in the second half of the 1960s, anyone could touch the keyboards of these antique instruments even if they had not the faintest idea how to play them. Some visitors with musical skills used to play music on them. Nowadays, visitors are not permitted to touch the instruments without special permission from the management of this house maintained by the National Trust.

Built in about 1693 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1378648), Fenton House is named after Philip Robertson Fenton, a wealthy Riga merchant who exported goods to the UK. He bought it in 1793. Prior to getting its current name Fenton House was known as Ostend, then Clock House. Members of the Fenton family lived there until about 1835. Later residents included a Mrs Selwyn, and, according to Baratt, a historian of Hampstead, also:

“…Mr. Vaughan Davis; Thomas Turner, Treasurer of Guy’s Hospital and the Hon. Mrs. Margaret Murray, afterwards Baroness Gray in her own right, and great-aunt of the sixth Lord Mansfield. Lady Abercrombie also resided in this mansion for a time. Both Baroness Gray and Lady Abercrombie had been ladies-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, and her Majesty visited them on different occasions at Fenton House.”

Lady Binning, widow of Brigadier-General George Baillie-Hamilton (1856-1917), whom she married in 1892, bequeathed Fenton House to the National Trust in 1952, the year of her death.

The musical instruments within the house were collected by Major George Henry Benton Fletcher (1866-1944), who had a varied career including social work; archaeology; art and book illustrating; and soldiering. His collection of keyboard instruments was housed in various locations including Old Devonshire House in Holborn, where he lived until it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Fortunately, his collection of musical instruments was saved because he had evacuated them to Gloucestershire earlier. In 1937, he had donated his house and the collection to the National Trust on the condition that he could live there for the rest of his life. His collection of musical instruments was moved to Fenton House in 1952.

At present (April 2021), visitors cannot enter the house, but are able to see the small but lovely gardens. The rear gardens are on two levels, the lower of these includes a small orchard. The upper level is a lawn surrounded by flower beds. At one end of the lawn, there is a sculpture of a standing figure holding a long, slender staff in his right hand and dressed in what looks like 18th century attire.

In one of the flowerbeds, I noticed three small carved stones that look like small tombstones. Two of these have become almost submerged in the soil. The third has the following carved on it:
“ BE??? 1933-1944”, the question marks being letters that were too indistinct to read. The stones reminded me of the small gravestones that I have seen in the pet cemetery on the edge of London’s Hyde Park. The volunteers working at the house confirmed that these stones mark burial sites of pets, who resided at Fenton House. The stone with a visible inscription most probably commemorates a pet owned by Lady Katharine Binning (née Salting), who bought the house in 1936 (https://alondoninheritance.com/london-buildings/fenton-house-hampstead/). As for the other two stones, without digging them up, which would not find favour with the National Trust, we cannot know when they were placed, or by whom. As they are the same design and material as the one inscribed stone, maybe it would be safe to guess that they mark the burial places of other pets owned by Lady Binning.

I look forward to entering Fenton House when covid19 regulations are relaxed in the future. From what I remember of earlier visits, its rooms are filled with interesting exhibits in addition to the lovely old musical instruments.

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