Academic journal article The Historian

The Contested Inspiration of Kent's Landscaping Innovation: Native Ingenuity, Renaissance Italy, Ancient Rome, or China

Academic journal article The Historian

The Contested Inspiration of Kent's Landscaping Innovation: Native Ingenuity, Renaissance Italy, Ancient Rome, or China

Article excerpt

In a small but most prophetic way, the design of English gardens moved away from the regularity and discipline of classical European art in the late 1720s and early 1730s. Then as later, the trail-blazing laurel was awarded to William Kent (1685-1748). His contemporaries claimed that Kent's bold and iconoclastic turn to the irregularity and freedom of nature was undertaken "according to what one hears of the Chinese, entirely after their models for works of this nature." (1) Even though this association of the English garden design reforms initiated by Kent with Chinese influence continued into and through the middle of the eighteenth century, it was abruptly and influentially rejected by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) in a patriotic chronicle of English garden history entitled On Modern Gardening, first published in 1780. (2) Displeased by the appellation jardin anglo-chinois, which the French began using around that time to describe the new irregularly-laid-out English pleasure ground, and which Walpole and his friends Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and William Mason (1724-1797) took as a disparagement of English horticulture and more, Walpole anointed Kent as a pure home-grown English talent. This included a rejection of any claim, either French or English, that China was a source of inspiration; for Walpole, this was a point of both politics and national pride. (3) Whether or not we situate this within what Craig Clunas calls "the great archive of Orientalism" or "a universally synchronized narrative of history" centered on the West, Walpole's categorical dismissal of any Chinese inspiration has been influential. (4) In fact, variations on Walpole's claim are still heard today, as in a recent remark that "for eighteenth-century British audiences, the Chinese garden was a metaphor, not a thing." (5)

In the mid-twentieth century, however, there was already evidence showing that Kent may well have had access to detailed Chinese gardening ideas. (6) Inevitably, this cast serious doubt on Walpole's mythopoetic portrayal of Kent as a native genius who simply "leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden." (7) In addition, and as will be explained below, the particular circumstances of the evidence were used to suggest an alternative view: that Kent was inspired by both ancient Rome and China because both "revealed the same truth." (8) This connection of Kent with ancient Rome has since been continued, but the concurrent rejection (implicit) of Walpole's horticultural nationalism and the explicit acknowledgment of China as an inspirational source have not been retained. As Kent's landscaping triumph has been reinterpreted in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as "an intensification of existing trends" or as an act of "'translating' classical forms into 'modern dress'," the result is a paradoxical view that hails Kent as the initiator of something new while connecting him to everything that is clearly and indisputably old. (9) As will be shown later, this attribution of Kent's unusual horticultural achievement to Renaissance Italy or ancient Rome is as problematic as Walpole's earlier exaltation of him as the embodiment of indigenous originality. To understand the hitherto largely overlooked significance of China as the crucial and perhaps even decisive inspiration of Kent's extraordinary landscaping career, we must remember how he first began his experiment with landscaping irregularity in the Chiswick gardens. In the process we will also understand the early modern English encounter with China in ways that extend far beyond the English representation of that country in chinoiserie or other variations of orientalism. (10)

ITALY, BURLINGTON, AND CHISWICK

Born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, in 1685, Kent grew up with no higher prospect than becoming a coach or house painter, but his life took an auspicious turn in 1709 when some wealthy gentlemen in his home county, having seen Kent's potential, sent him to study the pictorial arts in Rome. …

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