Building the Exhibition

Word and Image department
February 17, 2014

There’s a lot of designing going on in William Kent. The exhibition subtitle is ‘Designing Georgian Britain’, the title of this blog is ‘Designing William Kent’ (meta, I know), and a large number of the objects on display are designs for everything from chandeliers to landscape gardens, from town house ceilings to a royal barge. We’re working closely with our exhibition designers HaraClark and the final design plans, accurate to the nearest object label, are now complete. Designing away to our heart’s content will only take us so far however, and now everything is in the hands of the V&A’s Exhibitions department who after months of planning and organisation are making sure we get this show on the road.

Last time I hinted at what was going on behind the closed doors of the exhibition space, and V&A Exhibitions arranged for me to take a look at the building site that will shortly be transformed into our exhibition. Behind the serene V&A exterior contractors are on site every day working hard on the build, and the whole space currently looks something like this:

Engraving from a set of twenty prints depicting grotesque panels containing pagan divinities. This panel shows Vulcan, the god of fire and metalworking.

Oh wait, sorry, I meant this:

A view of the build for William Kent at the V&A.

Here the contractors are putting the finishing touches to the bars that you can see running across the ceiling. This is a supportive truss from which we will suspend printed gauzes, used to break up the space into different sections, and also to provide a bit of atmospheric context for the objects on display. Throughout the exhibition design we’ve been keeping in mind the sense of theatricality in Kent’s own design aesthetic, and the extent to which his interiors resemble stage sets on which the objects perform.

Kent was inspired by Ancient and Renaissance forms, and he often presented the key ingredients of this Italianate style (portrait busts, Vitruvian columns, elaborate grotesque swirls) in the manner of a stage set.

Detail of a design for an Italianate interior by John Talman, about 1711. Talman was the friend and mentor with whom Kent first travelled to Italy in 1709, and his influence upon Kent can be seen in our man's later work. This design for an elaborate interior presents the core features of Italianate style (portrait busts, Vitruvian columns, elaborate grotesque swirls) in the manner of a stage set. Talman, like Kent, was inspired by ancient and Renaissance forms. Museum number 3436:246 ©Victoria & Albert Museum

In practice Kent’s work strongly shows this Italianate influence– the statuary, columns and scrolling furniture in this view of Chiswick villa echo not only Talman’s design but also Vulcan’s setting in the Renaissance print above.

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

As you can see, we’ve got a bit of a way to go before the exhibition looks like anything other than a building site, and I’m assuming we will have a more sophisticated hanging system for our gauzes than that securing Vulcan’s drapes! Progress is being made every day though, and I’ll keep you updated with how the Exhibitions team’s master plan is developing as we count down towards the big reveal in March.

A view of the William Kent exhibition build

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