Closed Exhibition – William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain
Biography of William Kent
Oracle of Taste or Contemptible Dauber?
William Kent divided opinion both during his life and after his death. Praised as a 'genius', an 'oracle… much consulted by all those who affected taste'1, and the 'greatest designer of the eighteenth century'2, he has also been considered the 'best architect'3 of the Georgian era and the 'father of modern gardening'4. These plaudits befit a man who is said to have spent a charmed existence 'sailing thro the wayes of Life well befriended, well employed and [amassing] plentifull incomes…'5.
However, Kent has also been described (usually by the same people) as an 'opportunist' whose work was 'often third-rate or disastrous'6, an over-rated sycophant who hid his lack of talent behind 'civil and obliging behaviour'7. In this view Kent was a terrible artist whose paintings were 'below mediocrity' and whose portraits 'bore little resemblance' to the sitter8. He was the creator of 'preposterous' designs, 'terrible glaring'9 interiors and 'clumsy' features that were 'a great waste of fine marble'10. Moreover, these are the words of his professed admirers! Over the past three hundred years Kent has also had many determined detractors, including his arch-enemy the painter William Hogarth who cruelly summed him up as a 'contemptible dauber'.
Like most people, Kent was probably a mixture of lots of things—a talented and inventive designer and charismatic companion who was not afraid of using his charm to influence the rich and powerful, and an innovative jack-of-many-trades who was better at some things than others. In fact, these unrestrained and polarised comments probably reveal less about Kent himself than about the strength of feeling that he inspires. The degree of both admiration and vitriol corresponds to the importance of his contribution to British design history and the influence he exercised both personally and aesthetically.
Early Patrons: Yorkshire Gents and Virtuoso Lords
One of the most important driving forces behind William Kent’s career was the sheer strength of his personality. He was born in 1685 into a modest family in Bridlington, Yorkshire, the son of a successful joiner but without independent means. As such he relied on the financial backing of others throughout his entire working life and was remarkably talented at garnering and maintaining the support of wealthy patrons. His Yorkshire roots stood him in good stead, and his initial break as a young painter came from benefactors from his home county who 'raised a contribution and recommended him to proper persons in London'11. Once in the capital he befriended a young connoisseur, John Talman, and in 1709 they sailed for Italy, a country that would be Kent’s happy home for the next decade. Throughout this time Kent enjoyed the financial support of a series of his friends and associates, including his early backer Sir William Wentworth, two gentlemen named Burrell Massingberd and John Chester, the young Thomas Coke, who would become Earl of Leicester and eventually commission the splendid Holkham Hall, and most significantly of all, Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington. Burlington, described as 'full of money' and 'loving pictures mightily'12 would be Kent’s friend and supporter for the next thirty years. Their collaborative working relationship is one of the most enduring and successful in British artistic history, and it was largely a result of Burlington’s aesthetic aspirations and political influence that Kent made the transition from a medicore painter of pictures to an inspired designer of interiors, furniture, architecture and gardens.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Kent’s years in Italy towards his personal and artistic development. Initially going to Rome to study as a painter, he inspired high hopes in his patron Massingberd, who encouraged him to 'study hard and not think of coming over [home] until you are a second Raphael'. Massingberd’s faith in Kent’s artistic talents were unfortunately profoundly misplaced, and despite studying with the Italian master Guiseppe Chiari, painting was never really Kent’s strong point. Nonetheless, he taught himself the art of etching, and did secure a prestigious commission to paint the ceiling of a church in Rome.
More significant however, was Italy’s cultural impact on Kent. Together with his patrons he travelled widely around the whole country, making notes and sketches of what he saw. He also started acquiring (in at least one case this is actually a euphemism for ‘smuggling’!) works of art both for himself and his associates, and the value of these Italian souvenirs as reference points for his later art and design is revealed in a letter that pre-empted his return to London:
'I lay what little money I have on prints & stucco figures as heads & feet will be of great use to me when I cannot see ye Antiques'.
The heavy, sculptural, gilded Italianate style that Kent developed upon his return to England—and what we know consider ‘Kentian’—was heavily influenced by these years in Italy, and born in part from a profound sense of nostalgia towards Italian art and Italian culture, not to mention the Italian weather. Writing in January 1720, shortly after his return to London, Kent wrote to Massingberd,
'I am still at work here, the days being so short and cold to an Italian constitution that I keep to my little room. Only twice a week I go to the Operas where I am highly entertaine’d, and then think myself out of this Gothick countery'.
This Gothick Countery
Despite the climatic shock to his Italian constitution, it wasn’t all bad for Kent back in this 'Gothick countery'. Never one to enjoy the discomfort of eighteenth century travel, Kent had a 'dismal journey' back from the Continent, but was soon safely back 'with my Ld. Burlington and lodg’d in his house'. It was traditional for grand patrons to offer lodging within their homes for the artists they supported, and Kent joined Burlington’s cultural stable of virtuosi and protégés, who included the poet Alexander Pope and the musician George Frederick Handel. Kent loved his time as Burlington’s guest, and some of his most charming sketches depict him at leisure in the grounds of his Lord’s villa at Chiswick. Throughout his life Kent maintained warm personal links with Burlington and his wife and daughters, and was ultimately, at his request, buried in the Burlington family vault at Chiswick.
Royal Favour—Politicks are not my Genius
With Burlington’s assistance, Kent secured a series of high-profile Royal Commissions. He managed, with typical charm, to maintain good relations with both King George II and his wife Caroline, and their son Frederick, who had set up a separate court in opposition to his father. Kent’s defence for not getting involved with the rows raging at court may have been that, as he wrote to Burlington, 'Politicks are not my Genius'13. Whatever his diplomatic strategy, Kent’s divided loyalties were doubly rewarded—not only was he appointed master carpenter to the Office of Works; Frederick also gave him the title of Architect to the Prince of Wales.
Death and Legacy
Unfortunately for Kent the one thing that everyone agrees upon is his physical appearance. Unflattering descriptions range from 'very hot and very fat'14 to 'obese and unpromising'15, constantly in need of a 'soft cushion to lay his soft Head and rest his tender Tail' during a life of 'high feeding & much inaction'. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that he died relatively young, in 1748, after declining health. He had never married, but maintained a long relationship with an actress, Elizabeth Butler, to whom he left part of his estate of ten thousand pounds. As visitors to the exhibition will see, however, Kent’s real legacy is much greater.
Follow @SignorKentino on Twitter to meet the man himself
Footnotes1 Horace Walpole, quoted in Susan Weber, William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, 2012, p.1
2 Timothy Mowl, William Kent: Architect, Designer, Opportunist, 2006, xiii
3 George Vertue, notebooks published in the The Wapole Society, vol. 22
4 Walpole, as above
5 Vertue, as above
6 Mowl, as above
7 Vertue, as above
8 Walpole, as above
9 Vertue, as above
10 Lord Oxford on Kent’s interiors at Raynham, quoted in Mowl, p.160
11 Vertue, as above
12Letter from Burrell Massingberd to Kent, quoted in Mowl, p.54
13 Letter from Kent to Lord Burlington, October 1745, quoted in Steven Brindle in Weber, William Kent, p.297
14Alexander Pope in a letter to a Lady Burlington, October 1738, reproduced in Margaret Jourdain, The Work of William Kent, p.87
15 Philip Mould, http://www.historicalportraits.com
16 Vertue, as above
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.