William Kent Designing Georgian Britain – Transforming Style

Exterior of Holkham Hall from the south, Holkham Estate in Norfolk, UK
Exterior of Holkham Hall from the south, Holkham Estate in Norfolk, UK

William Kent by William Aikman, ca. 1723–25 © National Portrait Gallery London

English Polymath William Kent (1685 – 1748) was a man of prodigious talent, completing works in architecture, interior decoration and gardens as well as painting, furniture, metalwork, theatrical design and costume. In short there wasn’t anything he really couldn’t turn his hand to. He was on a mission to be at the centre of everything his wealthy patrons were striving to achieve.

In so doing he became a leading light of his generation, and from Bridlington to Burlington, Kentino, or Signor as he was affectionately known, helped transform the art of living in style.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain was the first major exhibition devoted to this extraordinary prominent architect and designer of his day and held at Victoria and Albert (V &A) Museum at London in 2014.

Kent influenced the rich and powerful, gained both admiring and vitriolic comments, one of those designers in history who also seemed to polarize critics. He was among the highly influential ‘class of ‘85, brilliant men born in the year 1685 the year Charles II died.

On his tour in Italy Kent adopted Italian art, mannerisms and layered his speeches and correspondence with Italian phrases. He referred to himself as Guglielmo (Italian for William) and it was therefore inevitable that when he came to design English estates he would recall the example of Italy.

claude-lorrainKent worked with considerable success in each field of endeavour he took on. In Rome he encountered the paintings of Claude Lorrain and if the idea of such a landscape could be re-created in England with his noblemen friends, who had actually seen the landscape of Italy, Kent worked himself into a position to produce them.

He felt the delicious contrast of hill and valley changing imperceptibly into each other, tasted the beauty of the gentle swell or concave scoop and remarked how loose groves crowned an easy eminence with happy ornament’;

Chiswick Villa for William Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington – the perfect place to see and be seen

Kent was the right man in the right place at the right time and planted himself at the very essence of English cultural evolution.

He “leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden’ and his ideas as a designer of gardens were far more suited to an English climate than the more formal Italian parterre.

Kent championed the classical or Palladian style in architecture, which would become the hallmark of the Georgian age in Britain.

He set his stamp upon the entire interior design of his period, completing drawings for furniture and ornament of every kind, becoming the fashionable oracle of his day.

Kent SetteeeThe furniture he developed along Italianate lines has today become known as Kentian, its features recognizable; massive proportions, ornate carving with scrolled supports, a frequent use of gilding and the use of late Roman classical motifs such as masks, putti, shells, etc.

The elegant Georgian era 1714 – 1830 was named for the first four English Kings named George and would be dominated in architecture, by classicism.

Holkham Hall Entrance – like a giant Roman bath…

Some 200 plus works will be on show including drawings for Horse Guards at Whitehall, spectacular gilt furniture from Chiswick House and landscape designs for Holkham Hall.

At Holkham for many Kent’s architectural genius is apparent in its grand entrance hall, which is flanked with 18 fluted Ionic columns and leads through an apse to the saloon behind.

Agriculturist Arthur Young memorably observed it resembled a great bath waiting to be filled.

Holkham Hall was built between 1734 and 1761 and was esteemed the most elegant house of its kind in England.

It is certainly one of the most ambitious of all Palladian country houses and the most perfect of those surviving from the whole Anglo-Palladian movement and took some thirty years to complete.

Holkham Hall was ‘ultimately the work of Kent, Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, Kent’s patron Richard Boyle Lord Burlington and the clerk-of-works Matthew Brettingham‘, although Kent died long before it was finished. The ceiling and apse are coffered and the frieze derives from the temple of Fortuna Virilis at Rome.

This unique monumental work of art is a vibrant combination of pink, ivory, purple and green emanate from the nature of Derbyshire alabaster, which is used lavishly for the columns and lower walls.

Exterior of Holkham Hall from the south, Holkham Estate in Norfolk, UK

Rural society and economy would give country houses in England during the Georgian age a cultural importance far greater than in any other place in time.

Holkham Hall is certainly impressive on the exterior with its symmetrical disposition of a central block with a pedimented portico and flanking wings, which now acted as service blocks for servants, kitchens, stables etc. On either side of the main house the building was divided into three sections.

The rustic acted as a basement podium for one or more smooth faced upper storeys, the proportions of which, were all dictated by an impressive central portico.

The main entrance was marked by way of an external flight of steps up to the piano Nobile, with some notable exceptions, into the rustic itself.

Jonathon Richardson the elder (1665 – 1745) National Portrait Gallery 1717 – 1719 Portrait of Lord Burlington (1695-1753), before his Cassina in the grounds of Chiswick house

Born towards the end of 1685 in Bridlington in Yorkshire, William Kent’s friend poet Alexander Pope’s description of him would have us believe he was ‘a wild Goth…from a country, which has never been, or held no part of Christendom’.

Like many other young Englishmen of his day he went to Rome where he met a group of English nobles, including the 3rd Earl of Burlington, Richard Boyle who would remain his patron and friend for life.

Kent and Burlington were both prime examples of a persistent phenomenon of the time, the Englishman whose visit to Italy affected his life forever afterward.

By the eighteenth century in England there was an increasing importance for English Gentleman to be cultivated as well as literate.

The rising Whig gentry succeeded in placing their own king on the throne a Hanoverian, George 1 (1660 – 1727) and the upper classes and landed gentry began re-developing their houses to impress supporters and connections, as they desired to be seen as arbiters of design, style and taste.

1715 would be another landmark year.The work of the ancients became better understood through two publications, which would have a profound effect on the future of English taste that was now irrevocably bound up with politics.

The first was a publication of an English translation of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura and the second was a publication by Scottish architect Colen Campbell (1676-1729) Vitruvius Britannicus.

1715 is the year the 3rd Earl of Burlington Richard Boyle returned to England in April from his Grand Tour.

Upon arrival Richard Boyle learned of Colin Campbell’s publication, and was determined to address its many ideas for himself, returning to Italy in 1719, with the specific intention of studying the 16th century Venetian architectural master Andrea Palladio’s work in detail.

William KentOn his journey the Earl of Burlington had acquired Palladio’s drawings of Roman antiquity. He also met the young English painter by the name of William Kent and brought him back with him to England in his entourage. This meeting began their unique partnership, one that would forever change the whole nature of the English landscape inside and out, upstairs and down. What is known today as the Palladian movement in England was launched by a series of literary exultations by Lord Shaftesbury in his influential Letter on Taste, 1712.

Externally, English Palladian houses would invariably follow the same layout Palladio devised: a central portico, a rusticated basement storey and a square shouldered silhouette.

They became the distinguishing marks of even the most provincial country house. The climate of taste also provided ideal conditions for fine craftsmanship and design to flourish, setting high standards of design and execution.

Chiswick villa designed by both Campbell and Kent with Burlington eagerly participating, abounded in classical references.

Modelled on Palladio’s Villa Capra (La Rotunda) and a Villa by Palladio’s pupil Scamozzi, Villa Pisani, it is a delight to the ‘eye’.

It was like its Italian counterparts, designed to be a retreat from the pressures and profanities of the city or to be used for parties or recreation.

The word villa had passed from Latin into Italian and had been absorbed into the English language during the seventeenth century, and Palladio’s Villa Capra inspired its stylish exterior.

Palladio had placed great importance on viewing the landscape and the garden Kent created at Chiswick villa from 1719 onward for Lord Burlington adapted old and new Italy to a small English site.

Every walk terminated with some little building… another little villa…he created a setting for the classical rotunda, designed by Burlington, fronting onto a sunken amphitheatre where an obelisk presided over a circular pool of water. Around it he placed orange trees in tubs, an orangery in a classical setting

There was a grotto at the end of the Grand Canal and he introduced a more naturalistic note in the lawn between the villa and the lake, at the end of which he also built a cascade.

Alexander Pope encouraged and acknowledged the originality of his designs at Chiswick. In his view Burlington was the first owner of importance to ‘consult the genius of the place’ and to respect its natural contours.

William Kent became the crucial intermediary between the older traditions of, largely Italianate forms of gardens at the turn of the eighteenth century and the emergence of new genre by the middle of the century, one that would be seen as entirely English.

Kent’s approach was purely visual because he was able to see it with a painter’s eye, the setting of a house as a series of pastoral scenes, finally freeing the house from the last traces of formality

Colen Campbell and William Kent also designed Houghton Hall in Norfolk for Britain’s first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and building began in 1722. The entrance hall at Houghton is a 40′ Palladian cube, 40′ high and 40′ square.

The pale stonewalls smooth the transition from exterior to interior, which became a notable feature of Palladian halls in England for a long time.

William Kent did not actually make furniture only provided designs.

At Houghton Hall for Sir Robert the furniture in the saloon was in a scale appropriate to the proportions of the rooms in which it was placed and made of mahogany that was gilded.

In 1744 a volume published by John Vardy titled Some Designs of Mr Inigo Jones and Mr William Kent meant that many of his designs would endure to inspire later cabinetmakers

The idea of the saloon primarily as a picture gallery was to be of immense importance for the future.

Kent used deep red Utrecht velvet interwoven with gold thread to unify the scheme by also placing it on the furniture within the room

During Kent’s time of influence the former studiolo of a man of knowledge and discernment in Italy became one of the most important rooms in any country house of note, especially when Kent treated the bookcases as part of the architecture of the room and it became known as a library.

The Bute epergne made by Thomas Heming, designed by William Kent 1756 Courtesy of the Sotheby’s Picture Library

Its arrangement made Houghton Hall in one way the epitome of a new type of formal house, although it was also the first where the formal system began to crumble.

William Kent displayed versatility and artistic inventiveness as he gradually changed traditional layouts for rooms in houses to suit new modes of living.

While not much survives of his intervention into nature, at Rousham, Oxon, William Kent, between 1720 and 1725 completed a garden for Colonel Dormer, which contemporaries described as leaving you feeling as if he were ‘working inside as well as outside the canvas’.

Today people still comment when they visit this relatively intact Kentian garden in England, that it is like ‘stepping into a painting’.

Rousham ‘remains almost as Kent left it, one of the few gardens of this date to have escaped alteration, with many features which delighted eighteenth century visitors to Rousham still in situ’.

William Kent followed and imitated nature; but his was a nature idealized.

He was ‘painter enough to taste the charms of landscape’…and with the ‘pencil of his imagination’, bestowed beauty on all that he created during his lifetime.

His was a considerable legacy, one that would influence the evolution of design in architecture, interiors and gardens throughout the eighteenth century.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014-2015

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