William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum

The carpenter's son fêted by royalty for his lavish home and garden designs is celebrated in a new V&A show.
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William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum, SW7, on Saturday March 22 and runs to 13 July. Visit vam.ac.uk for details.


(Above left) Mirror in a carved, gilded frame topped by Prince of Wales feathers. (Right) Kent's Devonshire House chair (1733-40). Image: V&A

The story of how a carpenter's son from Bridlington, Yorkshire, became the most famous interior designer, garden designer, and architect in England — working for royalty and aristocracy for 20 years, and changing London — sounds like historical romance. In fact, as the latest Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition will show, its real-life hero, William Kent, wasn't conventional heart-throb material; rather, he was food-loving, cherry brandy-swilling, and, as a consequence, rather tubby.

While his Italian style gained him the nickname Kentino, he was down-to earth, and popular with men and women alike. A 1727 self-portrait on a painted staircase at Kensington Palace, that includes him and his equally plump girlfriend, actress Elizabeth Butler, beaming rosily over a trompel'oeil balustrade, shows how far the grammar school boy had come by the time he died in 1748, aged 63.

At school, Kent was noticed by a master who introduced him to the local MP. Eventually he met John Talman, whose father, William, architect of Chatsworth, was sending him on the Grand Tour. The son decided that Kent's drawing skills would make him a useful companion, and took him along. Kent was sponsored to study painting by two Yorkshiremen, who told him not to come back until he was the second Raphael.

That was in 1709, two years after unification, five before the first George came from Hanover to rule a newly made Britain. When Kent returned a decade later, in 1719, aged 34, not just an accomplished painter but bursting with everything he'd seen, from Palladian architecture to Italian palazzos and gardens, he found a land of aspiration and possibility.

He made powerful friends in Italy including Lord Burlington, whose London home, Burlington House, Kent moved into as artist-in-residence. He was soon one of the family, designing and painting for them, and working with Lord Burlington on the interiors and gardens of Chiswick House. Lady Burlington adored him and took pains to make sure he ate well. Kent never left.

He met Thomas Coke, 11 years his junior, who had inherited the estate of Holkham in Norfolk. Designing Holkham Hall, including interiors and furniture, became Kent's greatest work. Holkham's magnificent marble hall provides a dramatic backdrop in Keira Knightley's 2008 film The Duchess.


The marble hall at Holkham Hall seems to have a touch of Hollywood swimming pool glamour about it, and featured in the film The Duchess. Image: V&A

Almost as soon as he was back in London, Kent was helped to influential jobs and positions, such as designing interiors at Wanstead House in Essex, and at Cannons, Middlesex, for the Duke of Chandos. Then unexpectedly, George I, who was about to hire his own royal painter, Sir James Thornhill, to paint and furnish Kensington Palace, gave the job to Kent instead.

As drawings, paintings, and pieces of furniture show, Kent's prolific hand and versatility meant he achieved an immense amount. At Chiswick, the Blue Velvet Room with its high ceiling is stunning and sensuous, while in Kensington Palace his painted and coffered ceilings and furnishings showed endless variety. In Houghton, Norfolk — the neighbouring estate to Holkham — Kent's revamp of the Stone Hall, with its frieze of gambolling cherubs, remains breathtaking to this day. Whatever he touched turned to gold.

But there were detractors, too. As curator of the show, Julius Bryant, says: "It was all very golden, very bling — the Earl of Oxford called it, disparagingly, 'a great deal of gold'." Certainly, when Kent designed the Royal Barge for Frederick, Prince of Wales, it was all about gold. Frederick wanted the barge for his commute from Kew Palace up to town. The effect was "like Liberace in a stretch limo going up and down Fifth Avenue covered in sequins", says Bryant.

Kent was all about drama, and his clients lapped it up. His public architecture included Horse Guards and the Treasury, which stand today. But, among 200 items on display there are some stunners that didn't get built, such as a new palace for George II and Queen Caroline at Richmond Park. The large wooden model, which our Queen normally keeps boxed, opened like a dolls house to show bathrooms and kitchens. Approved in 1735, Queen Caroline's unexpected death in 1737 killed the palace, too. Kent's other great loss, though perhaps not London's, was that his Houses of Parliament also stayed at the design stage.


(Left) The Blue Velvet Room at Chiswick House; (right) Kent's designs for Chiswick House included garden scultpure (Images: Richard Bryant)

Many marvels at the V&A include wonderful console tables, chairs, a mirror for Prince Frederick just as flamboyant as his barge (too big to show), and a magnificent door, originally at now-demolished Devonshire House. A private collector bought it at a Chatsworth "garage sale" last year, so you can walk through a real Kent door and feel how grand it all was.

This exhilarating exhibition also displays Kent's affability; that he was fun to be with. In one telling sketch, done at Chiswick, he draws himself snoozing, while rabbits dance in a ring nearby.

Kent's extraordinary brilliance puts most of us to shame. Jovial, genial, energetic and pragmatic, he wrote to Burlington in 1745: "Politicks are not my Genius." But keeping out of them probably was.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum, SW7, on Saturday March 22 and runs to 13 July. Visit vam.ac.uk for details.

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