HOUSTON (AP) -- A collection of paintings including works by Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough has left its home at London's Kenwood House and will travel to museums around the U.S. while the stately home undergoes renovations, marking the first time many of the works have been seen outside of the neoclassical villa on Hampstead Heath.
The collection's first stop will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the exhibit "Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House" opens Sunday, running through Sept. 3 before going on to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.
"The draw will be big-name artists, sumptuous paintings and a nice trip through history," said Suzanne Ramljak, curator of exhibitions at the American Federation of Arts, which organized the traveling exhibition.
Almost all of the 48 works in the exhibit were given to England by Irish brewery heir Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh, who also bequeathed Kenwood House to the nation.
Lord Iveagh acquired most of the works in the exhibit in a short span -- from about 1887 to 1891 -- focusing on portraits, landscapes and 17th century Dutch and Flemish works characteristic of English aristocratic collections.
"It's a wonderful selection of masterpieces," said Susan Jenkins, senior curator for English Heritage, which oversees historic sites across the nation, including Kenwood.
One particularly notable work is a Rembrandt self-portrait called "Portrait of the Artist" from about 1665 -- one of his last self-portraits.
"For me, this whole exhibition is really about painting. Every picture here is a winner, but so many of them are just tour de forces of the act," said Edgar Peters Bowron, the Houston museum's curator of European art.
One room in the exhibition is devoted to full-length portraits of elegantly dressed women including Gainsborough's "Mary, Countess Howe" from 1764 with the subject clad in a pink gown as she walks down a path with an overcast sky behind her and Joshua Reynolds' "Mrs. Tollemache as 'Miranda,'" portraying the subject as a character in William Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
"(Lord Iveagh) obviously just loved their elegance, loved the way they were painted," Jenkins said.
She said Iveagh, a father himself, was also drawn to pictures of children. The exhibit includes Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Miss Murray" from the 1820s, which shows a beautifully dressed little girl in ringlets.
"She's sort of between a hop and a skip and a curtsy," said Bowron, who added that it was one of the post popular paintings of the 19th century, with the image reproduced on everything from boxes of chocolates to biscuit tins.
A handful of paintings in the exhibit were not part of the Iveagh Bequest but were added to the collection because of an association with the house, for instance "Three Long-Horned Cattle at Kenwood" by Julius Caesar Ibbetson from 1797 depicts cattle in the field near the home's dairy building on a lovely day, with fluffy clouds billowing in the sky.
Kenwood House, built in the early 17th century, was remodeled by the architect Robert Adam in the 18th century. Lord Iveagh bought Kenwood in 1925, planning to move his art collection there, but he died two years later, never living at Kenwood or placing the works of art there.
Jenkins said that she hopes those who see the exhibit in the U.S. are inspired to visit Kenwood House when it reopens in the fall of 2013, not only to view the paintings in their home setting but to also see some of the additional paintings that are part of the Iveagh Bequest but that did not travel with the show.
"On a sunny day, it is incredibly beautiful. It's on the edge of Hampstead Heath, which is this gorgeous, gorgeous, quintessential English parkland," Jenkins said.
Kenwood may also familiar to movie-goers for its cameo "Notting Hill," its white exterior appearing in the background in the scenes when Hugh Grant's character visits the character played by Julia Roberts on a movie set.
"The house itself is a star in its own right," Jenkins said.
If You Go...
REMBRANDT, VAN DYCK, GAINSBOROUGH: THE TREASURES OF KENWOOD HOUSE: Exhibit runs June 3 through Sept. 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, http://www.mfah.org. Adults, $10; ages 6-18, seniors 65 and up and students, $5; free for 5 and younger and active duty military. Free admission every Thursday. Open Tuesday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. -5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Sunday, 12:15 p.m.-7 p.m. Closed Mondays, except Monday holidays.
EXHIBIT SCHEDULE: After Houston, the exhibit goes to the Milwaukee Art Museum from Oct. 4 through Jan. 6, 2013; the Seattle Art Museum from Feb. 14, 2013 through May 19, 2013, and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock from June 6, 2013, through Sept. 8, 2013.