Lord Burlington’s Speech

Word and Image department
March 28, 2014

Kent’s success depended hugely on personal relationships. The most important and enduring of these was with Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, who was his friend, patron and artistic collaborator for over 30 years.

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1695 - 1753), mezzotint by John Faber II after a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller

I’m sure that 300 years after they first met, Kent would be flattered to think that his name is still tied to Burlington’s, and we were delighted when William Cavendish, the present Lord Burlington, agreed to open the Exhibition last week.

William Cavendish, Lord Burlington, delivering the opening speech for 'William Kent'

Here’s what he said:

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a great honour to be here tonight. Thank you Julius for inviting me – and for taking the time to walk with me through the exhibition earlier in the week.

Having seen what’s in store I can only echo Sir Paul’s praise and congratulate the production team for all their work in creating a stunning Elysium for us all to enjoy. Complete, I might add, with bird song. “Kentissime”, as Walpole might have said.

Kent, Kentino, the Little Signor, however you know him, we should all count ourselves extremely lucky to live at a time when so much expertise and academic vigour has been dedicated, over several years, to this man that we all admire. In the exhibition, as in the accompanying catalogue – for which ‘stupendous’ is about the least effusive description I’ve heard–it is thrilling to see how Dr Susan Weber and Julius Bryant, and their distinguished team of collaborators, have turned their brilliant spotlight on to Kent and his multifaceted career. And my goodness, how he shines.

We are indeed all fortunate, but few more so than my family and me. It is a great privilege for us to be counted among the many lenders to this exhibition, so too is it a privilege to retain so many direct links with Kent and his work.

I have to confess though, that my personal links with Kent started not by poring over his drawings or admiring his panache with gold leaf, but with…. hide and seek. I lived for the first ten years of my life just across the river from Chiswick House, whose Kentian allées and wilderness areas made the best possible arena for such games. Little did my sisters and I know back then, just whom we had to thank for our fun.

At about the same age I became aware of Kent’s Owl dressing tables, one of which can be seen in the exhibition. The tables were great favourites of my grandparents who placed them on their family corridor at Chatsworth. Which of course meant that the tables were always available for, yes I’m afraid so, more hide and seek. Those kneehole niches are the perfect size to make a small child feel completely invisible.

Another item in the exhibition that came indirectly from Chatsworth is a mahogany door and frame, originally from Devonshire House. You’ll be relieved to hear these were not involved in any childish games and in fact they were not seen by any of us for about ninety years, as they lay in long term storage until 2010 when they were sold in our attic sale. It is a highlight for me to see these hitherto uncelebrated examples of Kent’s design flair finally given some rightful prominence and, more importantly, a good home.

Kent’s brilliance, combined with his renowned charm, ensured a ready stream of patrons and I hope this exhibition will inspire patrons of the future, as well as artists and designers of the future.

But for me the principal reason this exhibition is so uplifting, and why the V&A should be especially applauded, is because it shows what can happen when there’s a new spirit in town, a new style and a new belief. Just as Kent took his inspiration from Italy, perhaps someone, even someone here tonight, will take inspiration from Kent’s vision and his remarkable ability across so many disciplines. Perhaps someone will “leap the garden fence” as Walpole put it, and forge a completely new direction for us all to enjoy.

But now it is time for us all to leap the garden fence – or at least walk sedately in to the exhibition. Just don’t get tempted by those kneehole niches…..

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