Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 9, 2015
Susan Weber, ed. William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain Exh. cat. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2014. 688 pp.; 624 color ills. Paper $85.00 (9780300196184)
Exhibition schedule: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, New York, September 20, 2013–February 16, 2014; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, March 22–July 13, 2014
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William Kent. View of the Exedra, Chiswick House, London (ca. 1735–38). Pencil, pen and ink, wash. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees, 26A, 26.

No eighteenth-century British artist had an output as wide-ranging and as versatile as William Kent (1685–1748). He worked for court, country, and city; his style encompassed the Palladian and the Gothic. Painting, sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theater design, costume, and landscape gardening—he turned his hand to them all. His genius lay not in one form of artistic production, but rather in the way he combined them. He is credited as the first Englishman to design complete interiors, with pictures, furniture, and upholstery integrated into single coherent schemes (John Cornforth, Early Georgian Interiors, New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2004, 137). The Saloon at Houghton Hall, for example, featured walls and furniture decked in crimson wool-and-silk caffoy, providing the grand setting for Sir Robert Walpole’s collection of old master paintings; Kent designed not only the interior furnishings, but also the picture hang, and he crowned the room with a gold and grisaille painted ceiling, providing an immersive visual feast and a masterpiece of British art.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain represents the first major exhibition devoted to this eighteenth-century polymath. Originating at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York and traveling to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), this exhibition, co-curated by Julius Bryant and Susan Weber, gave audiences on both sides of the Atlantic a taste for Kent’s rich and varied output. A strong collection of over two hundred objects, displayed in thoughtfully designed spaces, highlighted his aesthetic strengths, while sketching the contours of his career. Not least of the exhibition’s achievements was to represent convincingly in a gallery setting the work of an architect and artist whose most significant works are, like the Saloon at Houghton Hall, immobile.

The exhibition sensibly moved through Kent’s career chronologically, beginning with the formation of his own taste and style. An introductory bay, entitled “A Mission of Taste,” set out the stakes of the exhibition, linking Kent to the intellectual culture invested in, and associated with, the Anglo-Palladian moment. William Aikman’s full-length portrait of Kent (ca. 1723–25) introduced the artist, who stands with truculent self-confidence, palette and brush in hand, in front of classicized architecture. From the first he was a painter linked with architecture. Key books associated with the Anglo-Palladian movement were displayed alongside this portrait, providing a sense of the intellectual milieu.

The second section turned to Kent’s early career. In 1709, at the age of twenty-four, with ambitions of becoming a history painter, he traveled to Italy, where he spent a decade. Early studies, such as a red-chalk drawing of Cleopatra after Carlo Maratti, and a ceiling design representing the Palace of the Sun, situated his early work within the context of late Italian baroque painters. Yet, as the exhibition made clear, Kent’s Italian sojourn was just as important for the connections the socially aspirant Yorkshireman made with friends and future patrons, such as with Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington.

Working with Burlington, “the architect earl” and arbiter of taste, Kent would pioneer the Anglo-Palladian style, the focus of the third section of the exhibition. Upon his return to England, Kent was often resident at Burlington House in London. At Chiswick, Burlington’s Anglo-Palladian country villa of his own design, Kent painted interiors, designed furniture, and helped to develop the garden, both under the direction of and in partnership with his patron. The “mission of taste” here took even more visible form.

With the fourth section, “From Painter to Architect of Interiors,” the exhibition hit its stride as an analysis of Kent the designer. Here, the furniture grouped according to house, ranged together side by side, almost as if in a show room, invited close observation of individual objects while simultaneously prompting productive comparison. One could take in the pedimented, geometric mahogany hall chair from Chiswick and the expressive curves of the leonine-featured gilded armchair, upholstered in green-silk velvet, from Houghton.

After this focus on “Kentian style” in elite domestic interiors, a series of thematic sections ordered by style and patronage demonstrated Kent’s diversity and versatility. Designs for the choir screen at York Minster showed him to be an adept, early exponent of the Gothic revival. Elevations of the impressive facade of the Horse Guards and designs and models for the Isaac Newton monument in Westminster Abbey demonstrated his most public work. Commanding this space at the V&A was the seven-foot-long pearwood model of a proposed summer palace in Richmond, designed in 1735 for George II and Queen Caroline—Kent’s architectural ambition at its grandest.

The final room of the exhibition, entitled “Elysium,” showcased Kent’s landscape gardens. A film with footage from his work at Rousham, Chiswick, and Stowe complemented the rich collection of drawings on display. Sitting on the exhibition benches, watching the camera pan over the English countryside, one almost had the impression of having spent the day at a Kent-designed country house.

That the exhibition could instill in the visitor the sense of having entered a composed, total, coherent space such as a country house was one of its greatest strengths, and the credit for this is due both to curators and designers. The absence of historical and physical context poses a challenge to any display of architecture and elements of interior design. For, while individual objects—such as furniture, silver, architectural detail—tell part of the Kent story, they were originally intended as elements of an aesthetic whole, in conversation with other objects in a room, rather than isolated in a museum display. In countering this isolation, the designers of the V&A installation, particularly, adopted a degree of theatricality that successfully kept Kent and his designs at the fore while dramatizing their impact. Most strikingly, a magnificent silver chandelier, designed by Kent for George II’s Leineschloss in Hanover (1736–37), hung at the exhibition’s heart. Windows cut through the exhibition walls created an enfilade, with this gleaming reference point visible from all parts of the gallery, a subtle yet constant reminder that the exhibited objects should be interpreted within a spatial context, be it an interior, a garden, or even a city landscape. Drawings by Kent of picture and door frames were reproduced on the walls, enlarged to the size of life, to contextualize the furniture. In both venues, the inclusion of a Kent-designed door, a piece of architectural salvage from the now-demolished Devonshire House, also helped bring the architecture to life. Installed slightly ajar, as if an entrance to a room, visitors could feel, momentarily, that they inhabited a Kent interior. The exhibition design at the V&A even incorporated Kent’s playfulness; the use of a dog from one of the garden sketches, enlarged and reproduced on the walls of the Elysium section, reflected the witty and whimsical marginalia that enliven many of Kent’s drawings. To complement this sense of immersion in Kent’s Britain, George Frideric Handel’s Water Music (1717) wafted throughout the exhibition.

Indeed, providing a sense of the country house and its interior is where this exhibition truly excelled. Brilliantly produced films of the interior spaces of Houghton and Holkham Halls brought those spaces to life. At the V&A, the use of large projections allowed the visitor to feel immersed in these spaces, transported to Kent’s rooms in the Norfolk countryside. Camera pans up stairs and around rooms showed off the well-integrated interiors and prompted consideration of the way in which individual pieces of furniture from the exhibition display would have fit within them.

Some of the greatest strengths of this exhibition also produced its weaknesses. Throughout the exhibition there were tantalizing hints of the ways in which Kent responded to and influenced the arts in Britain during this period. While the objects demonstrated the strengths and wide-ranging skills of this artist, there was very little sense of a “Georgian Britain” outside of the world of William Kent. Given the scope, this would have been difficult to adequately cover in the exhibition itself, but the contextual resonances might have been productively considered in the extensive albeit somewhat too narrowly focused catalogue. Further discussion, for example, of relationships with cabinetmakers and silversmiths would have helped locate Kent within a larger network of artisans and craftsmen.

Given that Kent set out to be a history painter, and that some of his earliest and most important commissions were decorative paintings at Kensington Palace, these should have received more attention. Although significant works were represented through small hand-colored prints from W. H. Pyne’s History of the Royal Residences (1819), use of film would have shown spaces such as the King’s Staircase at Kensington Palace to greater effect.

The monumental catalogue published to accompany the exhibition serves as a lasting testament to Kent’s breadth—weighing in at 688 pages, it contains 21 essays written by leading Kent scholars. Each focuses on a specific aspect of Kent’s career, from his country houses to the royal barge that he designed for Frederick, Prince of Wales. The catalogue would have been stronger with the inclusion of object entries: given the exhaustive research invested in the project, it is unfortunate that a hunt through the index is required to patch together a discussion of an individual object. Still, taken together the essays constitute an indispensable reference, establishing a firm foundation for future scholarship.

Together the exhibition and catalogue give Kent the thorough attention he has so long deserved. Despite the sheer range of his productions, his important patrons, his successful career, and his enduring legacy in interior design, his contribution to British art has been seriously underestimated. Surveys of the period, with their invariable emphasis on easel painting, often make only passing mention. He has fared better in histories of architecture; but here, too, the diversity and richness of his work have been largely overlooked. (Cornforth’s Early Georgian Interiors is the exception.) Nevertheless, as this expansive and visually enticing exhibition so successfully demonstrated, Kent’s artistic productions represent an essential and vital aspect of Britain’s aesthetic output during the eighteenth century.

Laurel O. Peterson
PhD candidate, Yale University

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