An exhibition at the V&A traces the work of William Kent, the under-appreciated architect who could turn his hand to anything
William Kent’s celebrated portrait by William Aikman (c1723-25) hangs at the entrance of this latest and important exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum; a man in his forties holding his paintbrush and commissioned by an admiring client at a time when decorators and painters were often seen as little more than tradesmen. How did this evidently highly engaging man, the son of a Bridlington joiner, come to play (as the exhibition declares) ‘a leading role in establishing a new design aesthetic for the period when Britain defined itself as a new nation’? The sequence of drawings, items of furniture, photographs, plans and even a door and architrave from the demolished Devonshire House in London (1733-40), establish that remarkable journey. The exhibition provides a taste of a great but probably now rather under-appreciated architect who could seemingly turn his hand to anything.
As so often in the 18th century, the starting point comes from a visit to Ancient Rome. In Kent’s case, he spent 10 years in Italy, returning in 1719. Only one of Kent’s sketchbooks from this early period survives, but it is apparent that he drew anything and everything that he could, and was overwhelmed by what he found. Indeed the inspiring contrast of this long period in Italy with a childhood in the East Riding of Yorkshire is not so difficult to imagine. While the ancient Roman architecture and decoration was revelatory, of equal significance were the social connections made abroad. It was these friendships, with fellow British travellers, that established the key social relationships that would develop into a fruitful network over the course of Kent’s professional career. One of these, the 17-year-old Thomas Coke, would go on to commission perhaps Kent’s greatest work at Holkham in Norfolk.
Moving through the roughly chronologically arranged exhibition, drawings and paintings are soon supplemented by pieces of furniture, as Kent increasingly designed the furnishings of the rooms that he was redecorating. Remarkable is the pedimented hall chair designed (1727-32) for the gallery at Chiswick House, for his great long-term friend and patron Lord Burlington. ‘Kent’s chair for Chiswick has no known source’ the caption reads. Equally original seems the console table for the Red Saloon at Raynham Hall, Norfolk c1730. ‘A fully sculpted head of Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine emerges from a laurel wreath and acanthus leaf bouquet … Kent uses fish scale patterns on the table legs.’ From these descriptions, it is apparent that Kent derived enormous pleasure in devising these inventive commissions, and being the son of a joiner, benefited from a residual relish in how things are made and put together.
Happy to move beyond the strictly defined boundaries of the Classical, Kent’s earliest garden buildings emerge, sometimes using a novel and Picturesque blend of the Gothic: ‘In Kent’s hands, gothic motifs such as quatrefoils and crockets, ogee arches and battlements, happily embellished classical symmetry and proportions.’ In the later landscape gardens of Stowe, Rousham and Badminton it is easy to see how, as the exhibition states: ‘his buildings vary from sober copies of ancient buildings to wild flights of fancy, from pyramids, triumphal arches and Chinese kiosks to grottoes and artificial ruins’. Here was a man willing to have fun, and in any style, although these buildings are often a sophisticated assembly based on a strongly intellectual overview and not whimsicality.
To understand how a designer of furnishings, decorations and occasional garden structures could become an architect of major country houses, a royal palace at Richmond (of which a very beautiful model survives from 1735) and a new Parliament building at Westminster, it is important to appreciate how Lord Burlington and his circle, combined with royal patronage, would have a transformative effect. The exhibition notes that ‘Lord Burlington realised that the surest way to entrench this stylistic revolution was to use the Office of Works … to dominate the artistic presentation of the new regime.’ To this state-sponsored commissioning process, we owe Kent’s surviving Whitehall buildings at Horse Guards Parade and the Treasury. Kent’s influence extended into churches too, with four monuments that faced one another down the great nave space of Westminster Abbey: ‘Kent’s designs for these monuments provoked considerable discussion in contemporary journals. Kent used contrasting marbles to ensure his monuments were visible along the entire length of the Nave … in this way the imagery of Kent’s work entered the popular imagination.’ Even now, and despite a later Victorian framing, Kent’s 1731 monument to Sir Isaac Newton (see p118) stands out as one of the Abbey’s most powerful monuments.
Mention at this point must be made to the exhibition catalogue. With essays by scholars including John Harris, who has long lobbied for a proper exhibition on Kent, this catalogue is a magnificent legacy to a considerable accumulation of academic research. This remarkable and fully colour illustrated hard-back tome (which exceeds the size of the very largest of telephone directories), provides proof that relying on computer internet records of exhibitions can never be an adequate substitute for hard print. This substantial catalogue does not, however, make up for a blanket ban on sketching within the exhibition itself; the only sour note to strike and one that Kent himself would surely have disapproved of.
In respect of Kent’s own legacy, what emerges is somehow accessible, understandable, digestible and legible, even without the narrative of ancient sources and precedents. This is, after all, as architecture should be. If, as the exhibition states, the 18th century saw a transformation in British national culture which was the direct result of England and Scotland being joined through the Act of Union in 1707, this exhibition may be a timely wake-up call for a new architectural challenge that may yet emerge if this national union is disbanded after September.
William Kent (1685-1748): Designing Georgian Britain
Where: The V&A, London
When: 22 March - 13 July