On entering the exhibition you are greeted with a portrait of a confident William Kent by William Aikman. Unusual, such an assertion of status at a time when living British artists were not afforded any more status than workmen. This sets the tone of the exhibition – here you will discover quite how influential and integral to the creation of a new national aesthetic Kent was.
With the accession of the Hanoverians in 1714 it was felt that a new nation was being formed, and it was believed that art and culture were central to this regeneration. Inspiration was drawn from Italy and Kent conveniently returned to England in 1719, having spent ten years travelling and studying in Italy. Armed with his finely honed talent and his new friend, the third Earl of Burlington, he was ready to transform the face of Britain.
His career coincided with a huge increase in country house building and development and he played a key role in the aesthetics of many of the most prominent. From Wanstead House to Chiswick House, the most famous and most visited of all Anglo-Palladian villas of the period, his designs could be seen pervading the interiors. He was the first British designer to tackle the interior as a whole, and he had control even of where the paintings were hung (often in frames designed by him!).
It wasn’t just the homes and gardens of the aristocracy that Kent designed, he had royal patronage through generations of the royal family. Interesting to think of this feuding family all having the same favourite designer. His work for the royals helped to integrate his designs in to the public imagination. Beyond the grand buildings, some of which are still prominent London landmarks, he also designed a grand barge for Frederick, Prince of Wales which would often be seen on the Thames, as well as temporary structures for grand occasions such as weddings and coronations.
His architecture, metalwork, landscaping, and furniture are all celebrated in this exhibition. His work wasn’t universally popular, however – William Hogarth loathed the obsession with Italian style and the Anglo-Palladian style that Kent promoted. Having Hogarth’s paintings next to the objects that he exaggerated and satirised gives an interesting insight in to the work of both of these great men.
I went in to this exhibition unaware of the majority of Kent’s work but as I was drawn along through this beautiful space I came to realize just how vast his talent was. The final serene room showing his romantic visions for garden design is a lovely end to a well thought out, excellently displayed exhibition. The message is very clear – William Kent was the most important of the early Georgian designers in shaping the design of Britain, a claim difficult to dispute when faced with such broad evidence of his talents. Perhaps a small injection of acknowledgement to others working at the time would have made it feel a little less biased, but then who can argue with such obvious talent?
William Kent: Designing Britain closes on 13th July. It’s definitely worth finding the time to go.