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Around the galleries

William Kent: stylist for the 18th century

— May 2014

Associated media

The Bute epergne (ornamental table centrepiece) made by Thomas Heming, designed by William Kent 1756. Courtesy of the Sotheby’s Picture Library

Susan Grange discovers how a multi-talented joiner's son created the 'look' of an era

Flamboyant, personable, talented, the joiner's son from Bridlington rose to work for lords, ladies, Kings and Queens. The rise and rise of William Kent (1685–1748) is a colourful story but it is one that influenced Georgian society and was instrumental in developing what can be considered England's one wholly original contribution to European culture.

Talent-spotted from a young age and attracting wealthy sponsors, Kent was soon on his way to Italy. The plan was to study the art of painting and imbibe the culture of the ancients and the Italian Renaissance so he could bring it all back home to England. Kent's Italian sojourn lasted ten years and by all accounts the Italian lifestyle suited him well. The main problem was that, despite much training, his skills as an artist turned out to be somewhat limited. No matter. His clearly amiable personality, knowledge and experience ensured he was in demand as adviser to aristocrats on the Grand Tour who were gathering art collections for their stately homes back in England. It was in Rome that Kent was to meet his most supportive and loyal patron, Lord Burlington.

Promoted to Burlington's friends and introduced into royal circles, Kent's company and experience were much valued. Commissions for paintings came his way, including work for the King at Kensington Palace.   It soon became clear, however, that painting was not his forte.

From this point of near failure, amazingly, a whole raft of opportunities opened up for Kent with plum commissions and royal appointments. These would make him wealthy and enable him to develop his indisputable influence on three main areas of English design. These were first, the interior design of Palladian Houses, secondly, the launch of the ‘Gothick’   style, and thirdly the development of 'naturalism' in landscape design, which would be copied throughout western Europe and become known as the 'English Garden'.

This fascinating and detailed examination of Kent's career, organized by the Bard Graduate Center, New York City and the V & A, places Kent's life and work in the context of the new nation of Britain. The country was defining itself after the act of union with Scotland in 1707 and the accession of the new Hanovarian Royal Family (1714 – after the death of Queen Anne, who left no surviving children). It highlights the heavy, gilded style of furniture and interiors that came to be known in England as 'Kentian'. This look was largely inspired by the richly decorated Baroque  palaces with which Kent had been familiar in Italy. They featured rich textures, veined marble, covered gilt console tables, sculptures on tapering pedestals, dense picture hanging and the extensive use of the rococo-style shell motif. Many of Kent's works still survive in country houses in Britain and the exhibition has mixed loans from private collections with its own works from the V&A. On display are examples of Kent's richly gilded and upholstered furniture made for Chiswick House, Wanstead House, and Houghton Hall.

Many architectural plans and drawings for Kent's commissions are on display. One whole section is devoted to his work for the royal family, including the Royal Barge designed for Frederick, Prince of Wales (1732) and Queen Caroline's library (1736). Kent's projects for the redesign of Georgian London are also featured, including the facade of Horse Guards (1753) and other projects that were never realized, such as his design for a new Houses of Parliament and interiors for the House of Lords.

Kent's lasting legacy, however, is his designs for gardens and garden buildings for Britain's country estates. The final room of the exhibition brings together films of his work in this area.  Rousham in Oxfordshire, the Elysian Fields at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, and Chiswick House are three of his garden design masterpieces that still survive. In an era when strict formal gardens in the continental style were de rigueur, Kent developed the work begun by Charles Bridgeman in freeing up the formality of the gardens. As Horace Walpole   wrote, Kent 'leapt the fence and saw that all nature was a garden'. This is a role generally credited to 'Capability' Brown who worked under Kent at Stowe when Kent was designing the gardens there.

Kent was an inspired designer who, as the exhibition shows, could turn his hand to sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatre design, costume and landscape gardening. All these areas receive detailed coverage in the fascinating book that accompanies the exhibition.

Clearly a giant of inventiveness and artistic ingenuity, Kent's life and work make for a stimulating and though provoking show. It is clear that his talents enabled him to play a leading role in the definition of British taste and the search for a new design aesthetic for the new Britain of the 18th century.


Susan Grange
Independent art historian

Editor's notes

'William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain' is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 13 July 2014.

There is a catalogue edited by Susan Weber. At 656 pages it is a very thorough account - but probably only for real Kent aficionados! It is a great pity that museums do not publish more short volumes on their exhibitions, which many people would appreciate.

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