Victoria and Albert Museum

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William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain - Holkham Hall

Holkham Hall in Norfolk is the most perfect surviving country house of the Anglo-Palladian movement, and the most complete example of Kent’s work. It was built by Thomas Coke, a wealthy commoner who rose to become Lord Lovell (from 1728) and Earl of Leicester (from 1744). Kent first met Thomas Coke while the latter was on his Grand Tour in Italy. The young Coke had been a troublesome youth, more interested in hunting than his studies, and scolded by his guardians for 'conversing with servants and ordinary people in the neighbourhood'. In 1711 at the age of sixteen, Coke was sent to Italy in the hope that continental art and culture would improve his morality and taste. The plan worked, and by 1714, when Coke met Kent, he had been transformed into a self-professed 'perfect virtuoso, and a great lover of pictures'. It was this erudite and culturally mature young man who would eventually commission Holkham. He sought to transform his inherited Norfolk estate into a showcase for the remarkable collection of paintings, sculpture and books that he had amassed on his Grand Tour.

Holkham was intended as an antiquarian exercise—an attempt to recreate a Roman villa for the new Romans of Georgian Britain. It consists of a main house surrounded by four wings, a design inspired by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whom Kent greatly admired. In fact, almost every aspect of Holkham’s exterior architecture can be traced back to the ancient world or to authorities on the ancients such as Palladio. Meanwhile, its rich interiors are a living reminder of the Italian baroque palazzi Coke and Kent visited together.

Holkham’s four wings housed the family’s apartments, rooms for guests, a library and a chapel. In addition to the exterior of the house, Kent made designs for the Library and the Great Hall. He also designed Lady Leicester’s chamber in its entirety and many other interior features, but the precise nature and extent of his contribution has always been unclear due to the long time scale over which the house was built, and the fact that Kent died in 1748, long before it was completed.

Holkham took over thirty years to build, and was ultimately the work of Kent, Thomas Coke, Kent’s patron Lord Burlington and the clerk-of-works Matthew Brettingham. The building was completed by Coke’s widow, Lady Leicester, in 1764.

Video: Holkham Hall

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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.