An exhibition at the V&A explores the work of William Kent, whose paintings, sculpture, interiors and neo-Palladian architecture helped define 18th century taste. Rakesh Ramchurn reports
William Kent’s prolific career owes a lot to great timing. After 10 years spent studying the works of the old masters in Rome, he returned to Britain in 1719, just five years after the last Stuart monarch died. The Hanoverian succession was accompanied by an artistic upheaval, as the styles of France and the Low Countries, long associated with the Stuart dynasty, fell out of favour and a conscious search began for a new style to define the nation.
A nostalgia among the wealthy for Italian art and architecture, learnt through the popular Grand Tour, together with the influential patronage of Lord Burlington, led to Kent becoming the key proponent of the Anglo-Palladian style which flourished in the 18th century. While he began as a painter, from 1725 he started to design whole interiors, and this exhibition at the V&A collects more than 200 drawings, plans, paintings, sculptures and furniture pieces to demonstrate the impact his work had on Georgian Britain.
Kent is probably best known for his work on the interiors of country houses – homes which were fashionable ‘must-have’ for London’s elite – and many of England’s finest, such as Chiswick House or Houghton Hall, epitomised his design aesthetic. Later he worked on ‘power houses’ for the wealthy in London as well as for the royal family, painting the state rooms at Kensington Palace and creating a barge for Prince Frederick, while his building projects included two major features of London’s Whitehall: the Treasury and Horse Guards.
Although much of Kent’s prolific output in the Anglo-Palladian aesthetic was little more than Continental pastiche, there were a number of clever innovations. Inigo Jones had already brought herms – carved pillars marking boundaries in the Classical world – to Britain as garden sculptures, but Kent turned the objects into functional indoor furniture to hold sculptures or lamps.
His foray into the Gothic style saw him take it out of churches and into the home, albeit tamed to Classical symmetry and proportions, while the exhibition includes an armchair Kent created for Houghton Hall which has carved representations of lions’ heads at the knees, the earliest dateable use of what was to become a vastly popular motif. Meanwhile, Kent’s fanciful designs for garden buildings – sadly only briefly touched upon at the V&A – took inspiration from sources as diverse as the Pyramids, Chinese pavilions and pastoral literature.
Despite being known affectionately as ‘Kentino’ or ‘the Signor’, not everybody was happy with his influence on the tastes of the time. A satirical print by William Hogarth entitled The Bad Taste of The Town mocked the contemporary fashion for Anglo-Palladianism by depicting a statue of Kent atop Burlington House (where he had worked on the interiors), dominating over adjoining statues of Michelangelo and Raphael. While their names are spelt correctly, Hogarth labels the Englishman’s statue ‘KNT’, the omitted vowel allowing for offensive mispronunciation. There were many in England at the time who, like Hogarth, preferred the style of the English baroque and who saw Kent’s work as an unwanted foreign import.
But Kent was popular where it mattered – among the wealthy and powerful and, while much of his work can now be seen as pure pastiche, right down to the elegantly carved heads of gods and goddesses which graced so many of his furniture designs, it served the propaganda aims of the Georgian dynasty, which sought to associate an increasingly powerful Britain with the grandeur of Ancient Rome and to present a strong identity for the country abroad.
Perhaps the fact that Kent was enlisted to design four memorial pieces for Westminster Abbey, including those to William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, shows just how much he had been entrusted with the role of mouthpiece for English culture. In this way, Kent’s work, while just a strand of the creative buzz of the period, and regardless of its merits vis-à-vis other design movements of the time, embodied and even created the idea of 18th century Britain.
And, judging from the ever-growing tourist footfall at England’s country houses, Kent’s creation of Georgian Britain still resounds strongly today.
Designing Georgian Britain
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7
Until 13 July, Entry: £9