William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain - About the Exhibition

William Kent by William Aikman, about 1723–25, oil on canvas. © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Kent by William Aikman, about 1723–25, oil on canvas. © National Portrait Gallery, London

22 March – 13 July 2014

William Kent (1685-1748) was the leading architect and designer of early Georgian Britain. A polymath, he turned his hand from painting to designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardens. His life coincided with a major turning point in British history—the accession of the new Hanoverian Royal Family in 1714. This exhibition revealed how William Kent came to play a leading role in establishing a new design aesthetic for this crucial period when Britain defined itself as a new nation.

Kentino: The ‘Signor’ in Italy

Kent was originally from Bridlington in Yorkshire, but like many of his contemporaries was drawn by the allure of Italy. From 1709 to 1719 he studied in Rome, copying Old Master paintings and learning the techniques of etching and engraving. He travelled throughout Italy where he met important figures such as Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington. Lord Burlington would become his best-known patron and secure him a series of career defining commissions back in Britain. Part of Kent’s appeal for these English clients was a powerful nostalgia for their Italian tours. A jovial house guest of his patrons, ‘Kentino’ or ‘the Signor’ (as he was affectionately known) had the habit of breaking into Italian in his letters. The heavy, gilded style of furniture and interiors that took his name - ‘Kentian’ - was largely inspired by the richly decorated interiors of the Italian Baroque palaces that Kent’s patrons had been taught to understand and appreciate during their Grand Tours.

The Gallery, Chiswick House, William Henry Hunt, 1828, watercolour. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

The Gallery, Chiswick House, William Henry Hunt, 1828, watercolour. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

A mission of taste

Kent arrived back in England during a transformational time in British culture. The last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, had died in 1714, and the Hanoverians, led by George I, became the new ruling dynasty. The artistic styles of France and the Low Countries were associated with the Stuart regime and fell out of fashion. A search began for a new style that would define the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Wealthy aristocrats looked to the art, architecture and design of Italy for inspiration, believing that society could be renewed and improved by a new direction in art and culture. They spread their ideas through books and new journals that encouraged the discussion of Art by an expanding middle class. It was in this context that Kent re-launched his career in Britain. Together with Lord Burlington he championed a form of design inspired by the classical architect Vitruvius, the British architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and the Venetian Andrea Palladio (1508-80). Burlington began to design buildings for himself and his friends that were based on ancient models. He also sponsored several publications to promote the new Anglo-Palladian style.

An assembly at Wanstead House, William Hogarth, 1728-31, oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

An assembly at Wanstead House, William Hogarth, 1728-31, oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

From painter to architect of interiors

By 1725 William Kent had begun to extend his art from ceiling and wall paintings to the design of their settings. Kent was the first British designer to tackle an interior as a whole. Picture frames, door surrounds, fireplaces and furnishings started appearing in his design drawings. Kent designed interiors for several well-known houses, including Houghton Hall in Norfolk, Wanstead House in Essex, and Burlington’s own villa at Chiswick. He also designed interiors and furnishings for ‘power houses’ - the London residences of leading political and court figures. In the intensely competitive pinnacle of society, these houses were stages on which hosts and guests performed to set new standards in hospitality and taste.

Kent’s career coincided with a phenomenal increase in country house building and development. The Georgian governing class spent half the year in London, but also maintained a country seat where they entertained their peers. Owners also allowed respectable visitors to view their houses and collections. In this way Kent’s interiors would have been experienced by many.

Design for the façade of the Horse Guards facing East, John Vardy and William Kent, 1753, pen and ink, wash. Museum no. 3316, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Design for the façade of the Horse Guards facing East, John Vardy and William Kent, 1753, pen and ink, wash. Museum no. 3316, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Capital commissions

Lord Burlington realized that the surest way to entrench his stylistic revolution was to use the Office of Works, the department of the Royal Household responsible for all public buildings and their interiors. Under George I and his son George II, the new Hanoverian dynasty also recognized the propaganda value of associating themselves with the reformed national style, using it to reinforce the legitimacy of their monarchy. Through their patronage and a series of official posts in the Office of Works, Kent came to dominate the artistic presentation of the new regime. Kent’s two major public buildings, the Treasury and the Horse Guards, still stand in the heart of Whitehall.

Plan and side elevation of the Royal Barge, William Kent, 1732, pen and ink, wash. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

Plan and side elevation of the Royal Barge, William Kent, 1732, pen and ink, wash. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

The new monarchy

Kent’s first Royal Commission was to paint the new state rooms at Kensington Palace. This project launched his career in Britain and for the rest of his life he enjoyed the patronage of the Royal family. In addition to commissions from King George II and his wife Queen Caroline, Kent also worked for their eldest son, Frederick, Prince of Wales. Kent was a particular favourite of his and in 1732 Frederick granted him the official title of Architect to the Prince of Wales.

Design for the south front, Holkham Hall, William Kent, 1731-34, pen and ink, brown wash. By permission of Viscount Coke and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate. Photographer, Bruce White

Design for the south front, Holkham Hall, William Kent, 1731-34, pen and ink, brown wash. By permission of Viscount Coke and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate. Photographer, Bruce White

Holkham Hall

Holkham Hall in Norfolk is the most perfect surviving country house of the Anglo-Palladian movement. It was the home of Thomas Coke, a wealthy commoner who rose to become Earl of Leicester. Kent and Coke had travelled together in Italy and Coke remodelled his inherited Norfolk estate, building a new house as a showcase for his remarkable and extensive Grand Tour collection of books, sculpture and painting.

Coke collaborated fully on the design and building of Holkham, assisted by the executant architect Matthew Brettingham. The plans were submitted to Lord Burlington for his approval. Holkham is therefore the work of four men and their respective contributions are the subject of debate. The house took a generation to build. The foundations were laid in 1734 and it was completed by Coke’s widow in 1764.

Illustration for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, William Kent, 1729-48. Museum no. E.876-1928, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Illustration for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, William Kent, 1729-48. Museum no. E.876-1928, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Gothic

While Anglo-Palladian became the dominant national style, Britain’s Gothic architectural tradition retained its own appeal. Where classicism spoke of order and civic virtue, critics associated the Gothic style with the constitution and liberty, and with ancient British freedoms.

William Kent’s contribution to the Gothic style in Britain was to take it out of churches and colleges and into domestic settings. He undertook building projects at Esher Place and Rousham. In Kent’s hands, Gothic motifs such as quatrefoils and crockets, ogee arches and battlements happily embellished classical symmetry and proportions.

Landscape at Chiswick, William Kent, about 1733-38, pencil, pen and ink, wash. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Landscape at Chiswick, William Kent, about 1733-38, pencil, pen and ink, wash. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Elysium

Kent’s landscape designs confirm his status as the artistic genius of the era, a father of the English landscape garden. In contrast with the French and Dutch fashions for formal gardens, Kent took his inspiration from the ideal landscapes of pastoral literature and painting. His design drawings are not detailed plans, but poetic evocations of the landscape effects he was attempting to achieve.

Kent’s gardens could be places of activity and good fellowship, or places of reflection and solitude. Carefully crafted vistas lead the eye out beyond the garden into the surrounding countryside. He designed over fifty garden buildings which were positioned to act as picturesque focal points for views and also as places from which to contemplate the garden. His buildings vary from sober copies of ancient buildings to wild flights of fancy, from pyramids, triumphal arches and Chinese kiosks to grottoes and artificial ruins.

Follow @SignorKentino on Twitter to meet the man himself

Organised by the Bard Graduate Center, New York City and the V&A.
Support generously provided by The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts.
With thanks to the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of The Selz Foundation.

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