What’s It All About?

Word and Image department
March 21, 2014

Under normal circumstances I’d have been only too happy to celebrate the Budget with an infinitesimally cheaper pint and bargain game of bingo,  but Wednesday was also an important day in the life of another lover of alcoholic beverages and popular entertainment. That morning ‘William Kent’ was unveiled to the press, followed by the evening’s Private View:

The private view of 'William Kent'

The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow and the curators’ behind-the-scenes involvement is now largely over. We will still be giving lots of talks, tours, and interviews to explain the ideas and stories behind the exhibition, and these days when people ask me what the show is about I’m pretty well versed on the “William Kent was the most influential designer of early Georgian Britain…” answer. However there should always be lots of responses to that question, and now seems a good time to reflect on some alternative thoughts.

1) What’s so bad about an “unintelligible lounge for idlers”?

Pace, Mr Gradgrind/Henry Cole, I’m not suggesting that an exhibition shouldn’t be informative, educational and factually accurate, and much less that people shouldn’t be able to understand it, but wandering through ‘William Kent’ something that I like a lot and hadn’t fully anticipated until all the objects were in place is the sense of atmosphere. Ambiance isn’t an alternative to presenting the facts of history. It can also be the cumulative effect of learning and its impact is more than its constituent parts. No-one reads every word on every label and that’s a good thing– history has to be imaginative as well as knowledge-based, and an exhibition should be stimulating without being a chore. I hope some visitors walk round scribbling notes; I hope others idle away an hour looking at all the gold furniture, listening to bird song and as Kent said of the opera “thinking myself out of this Gothick countery.” Time well spent in either case.

Inside the exhibition.

2) Making the cut

As with baking a cake or giving a best-man’s speech, what you leave out is as important as what you put in. ‘William Kent’ is already a large and busy exhibition, but we could easily have included another 50 or so drawings. For example, only three out of a possible 27 of Kent’s illustrations for Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene made the final cut, and these were the drawings that specifically demonstrated parts of our own narrative.

William Kent, Una's Escape from the Old Womans House with her Lyon, after his killing Kirkrapine.

In everyday speech ‘curating’ is generally seen as an exclusively positive act– the corralling of objects (physical or virtual) or information into a place or narrative. And so it is. But there is also a lot to be said for the tacit flipside to this, knowing and caring about all the contextual supporting material and communicating the importance of the unseen through what you choose to show.

3) Everyone loves a good story

Whatever you feel about biographically-centred exhibitions, good stories need good characters. Kent has provided a lot of mileage in this regard, although I confess we’ve taken some liberties…

A screengrab of the V&A's William Kent twitter page

4) Fay A. Comply belongs only in the letters page of Private Eye

As with anything ‘finished’, it’s strange to look around the exhibition and remember that everything in it, every object, every piece of writing, every design quirk, is the result of someone’s decision. None of it was a fait accompli. At this stage I can’t image the exhibition being any other way, but as is the nature of scholarship and the mutable fashion of exhibition design, the next time someone curates an exhibition about William Kent it will look and feel entirely different. This is as it should be. The most important thing is that there is a next time.

5) To some people, William Kent is David Bowie

David Bowie Then: 1973; David Bowie portrait, pastel on paper, 2013 by Barbara Nessim

A wonderful thing about love is the extent to which the admirer truly believes that the whole world must share their passion for the admired. True, sometimes exhibitions do sell out, but to worried Kent fans everywhere: we are charmed, delighted, and humbled by your enthusiasm, but don’t panic– I doubt you’ll have to sell a kidney on the black market to procure tickets. Though we encourage you to book soon, naturally.

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