Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain

Article excerpt

Credit: Andrew Lambirth

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain

Victoria and Albert Museum, until 13 July

How important is William Kent (1685-1748)? He's not exactly a household name and yet this English painter and architect, apprenticed to a Hull coach-painter before he was sent to Italy (as a kind of cultural finishing school) by a group of patrons who recognised his abilities, became the chief architectural impresario and interior decorator to the early Georgian nobility. His Italian studies made him a devoted Palladian, and in partnership with his principal collaborator Lord Burlington he set about transplanting the architectural principles and beliefs of Andrea Palladio to the English countryside. He was probably a better ideas man than artist (the Damien Hirst of his day, perhaps?), but he had access to the finest craftsmen, who could execute his plans to great effect.

Horace Walpole called Kent 'the father of modern gardening...He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden.' His ideas were expanded and developed by the far more famous 'Capability' Brown (the English do love a garden), but it was undoubtedly Kent who pioneered this attitude, as the grounds of Stowe and Rousham bear eloquent testimony. He was a designer rather than a horticulturalist, and this conceptual approach marked all his endeavours. He designed furniture and metalwork, dabbled in book illustration, theatrical design and costume, besides his principal interests in painting, sculpture and architecture. His drawings are sometimes piquant but are rarely beautiful or aesthetically first-rate -- they are working drawings intended to convey his ideas, and in that they succeed.

As a conceptual artist, it is surely appropriate that a good proportion of Kent's designs never got further than the ideas stage -- and were never made real. He submitted proposals for a new Parliament building (1733-40) and for interiors in the existing House of Lords (1735-6), and designed a splendid-looking summer Royal Palace in the Anglo-Palladian style for Richmond. It was never built, but there is a great oak and pear-wood model in the exhibition which gives a good account of what it might have looked like.

Such exhibits bring the exhibition more to life than the rather smug portrait of Kent by William Aikman, in the first room, though the case of books below it gives a clear indication of the scholarly nature of the whole project. (The books include Shaftesbury's A Letter concerning the Art, or Science, of Design , The Spectator of 1712 by Joseph Addison, The Architecture of Palladio and Vitruvius Britannicus, or the British Architect by Colen Campbell.) There are some studies by Kent after such Old Masters as Annibale Carracci, Domenichino and Carlo Maratti, and then the infinitely better portrait of Lord Burlington by Jonathan Richardson. Here are a couple of drawings by Kent, rather in the style of Inigo Jones, intended as studies for sculpted portraits of Palladio and Jones. Once again the style of labelling fashionable among our museums leaves a lot to be desired. It's as if the exhibition's designers have a horror of labelling the actual exhibit, preferring to group the labels in a distant corner in order to preserve the surfaces and spaces of their installations in pristine condition. The fact that this habit does not best serve the public seems of very low priority. …

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