William Kent: Architect, Designer, Opportunist By Timothy Mowl. Jonathan Cape, 2006. £20
William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, Yorkshire, the only son of a prosperous joiner.
Ambitious and aspirational, Kent set off in 1709 to join the 'wildly camp' John Talman (son of Baroque architect William Talman) in Italy, and for the next decade spent more time attering rich patrons than studying art and architecture.
Mowl presents Kent as a man with a 'lavatorial sense of humour', far better at being obsequious than in copying Italian masters. Near 'illiterate', Kent left few letters, and so Mowl has had to find other avenues to bring his character alive. He does this by writing a 'stylistic' biography, which charts Kent's life through his visual inuences, from the Gothic architecture in Bridlington, through John Talman's adoration of Baroque and Rococo extravagance, to Burlington's preference for Palladian simplicity. These contradictory styles are united in Kent's architecture, his gardens and interiors.
Because Kent failed to see Andrea Palladio's villas in Italy, Mowl believes he never absorbed 'the essence of Palladio's genius' and therefore could not understand the real humanity of his Renaissance houses. Consequently, Palladianism in England became, in Mowl's words, a 'cut-and-paste' affair, with disastrous effects.
Mowl calls Burlington's Chiswick House 'architecture by numbers' and dismisses Kent's interiors at Kensington Palace as 'botched NeoClassical intentions'. The interiors of Kent's fi rst English commission at Burlington House are plain creamcoloured walls adorned with a few gilded and unconnected Classical details that were lost in the expanse of these walls.
These might be described as 'unmoving' and 'cold', but Mowl's insistence that everything Palladian is a catastrophe, while Kent's outrageously voluptuous - some might say plain vulgar - Baroque-inspired furniture and interiors are of 'superior magnificence', is unconvincing.
When Mowl equates some of Kent's tables with the art of England's finest Baroque woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons, he takes his polemic too far.
The stylistic biography works much better when Mowl uses Kent's drawings for garden buildings to portray a man who was funny and frivolous. They depict frolicking rabbits and shepherdesses, and in one drawing a little dog relieves himself on Lord Burlington's ankle. By illustrating the era's bawdiness, Mowl shows the reader that a 'sugary reverence for all things Georgian' is absurd, as the 18th century was not just an age of refinement and cultured sensibility, but also about debauchery and sex.
Mowl has a reputation for being provocative and some of his criticism is refreshing, but his attacks on Palladianism seem unsubstantiated and sometimes uncomfortable, in particular when he compares Kent's work for Burlington to Speer's designs for Hitler's Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
Andrea Wulf is co-author of This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens, and 300 Years of English History