March 21, 2014 6:38 pm

How William Kent became 18th-century Britain’s master designer

New exhibition at the V&A celebrates the life of the Yorkshireman with ‘polymath talents’ and a ‘magpie-brain’
The Temple of Venus across Eleven-Acre Lake at Stowe©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The Temple of Venus across Eleven-Acre Lake at Stowe

In July 1709, an unlikely trio set sail on a grand tour from Deal in Kent. They had to travel to Rome by ship, as the war of the Spanish succession still raged over northern Europe. But the seas were rough that summer, and only after some months did William Kent, Daniel Locke (an “architect” who built nothing on record) and John Talman, the son of the designer of Chatsworth House, wash up penniless in Tuscany. So they pledged to walk to Rome.

Once there, having absorbed the ruins, catacombs, churches and palazzi, William Kent announced he had won a papal medal for painting, and the news spread of England’s “Second Raphael”. Funds poured in to support his apprenticeship in the studio of the painter Chiari, sent from the purses of aspiring northern landowners with plain stairwells and old-fashioned saloons soon to be filled with their charge’s trompe l’oeil magnificence.

But they hadn’t seen Kent’s Roman fresco, which still survives in the church of San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi. It is a bit smaller than Raphael’s great cycle in the Vatican. To be honest, it’s tiny. And in reality, he had in fact won merely the second prize in the second division of papal awards. But then Kent’s PR always erred on the side of a triumphalism carried by confidence, a strategy for reputation-building since adopted by many a modern artist.

Kent’s legacies – for there are several – are celebrated in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the tercentenary year of the rise of the Hanoverian or “Georgian” monarchy (1714 to 1830). This homage, and its accompanying blue catalogue, a hagiography of Baroque proportions, showcase the Kent style. It demonstrates an outrageously energetic and accomplished command and frequent fusion of all the visual arts known to early 18th-century Britain: Palladian, Gothick, Roman, Rococo – a thatched hermitage – and many others happily indefinable by art-historical jargon. Though he informed the Georgian age, a Kentian garden, a Kent interior or even a sideboard are still in demand today. So where did his encyclopedic ideas come from?

The Blue Velvet Room at Chiswick House©Richard Bryant

The Blue Velvet Room at Chiswick House, in west London, designed by William Kent

William Cant was not bred in the polite society that would automatically have qualified him as a gentleman in an age of gentleman-architects, before the profession was established. He was born in 1685 in Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast, the son of a coach painter. His schoolroom was in the gatehouse of Bridlington Priory, from where he gazed at the forlorn medieval church. William’s aspirations soon outgrew the town, whose name was abstracted by his future patron, the connoisseur Lord Burlington (Burlington House, Piccadilly, is now occupied by the Royal Academy).

When the young William ventured down to London to seek his fortune, he too changed his name, finding the cockney pronunciation of “Cant” open to ridicule. This was only his first PR success. Once in the capital, through his undoubted charisma, William Kent made adventurous, well-connected friends. In their company he scrutinised arts and antiquities harder than most – and with less prejudice of what constituted fashion. He clearly scoured the sepia-washed drawing books of the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain as much as the details of classical columns and theatrical props. In doing so, at home and abroad he cobbled together the most extraordinary range of influences to make him Britain’s leading architect, furniture designer, theatrical designer and landscape gardener of the second quarter of the 18th century. Yes, he painted too. But he really was no Raphael.

Lord Burlington met “Kentino” in Italy, as did Thomas Coke of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, which Kent would eventually rebuild as a vast Veneto villa with a thumping Roman heart.

William Kent©National Portrait Gallery

William Kent (c1723-25) by William Aikman

“Once home in London in 1719, rather than return to his sponsors in Yorkshire, he settled into Burlington House for the rest of his life and charmed his host into opening for him all the doors in the corridors of power,” says Julius Bryant, curator of the exhibition.

The tide of elite patronage provided ideal opportunities for the polymath talents of this magpie-brain, who pioneered the “total interior” in Britain. In 1729 he worked for Queen Caroline at Kensington Palace and Kew. It was now only a step to being the favoured architect of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the royal miscreant and heir dragged from Germany to England, who set up court at Kew Green in 1731. Kent somehow forged a Palladian stuccoed residence from an Elizabethan red-brick house there, and made a splendid state barge with no shortage of gilded dolphins. But for many, gardening was Kent’s greatest and most lasting achievement.

In 1820, the great John Claudius Loudon wrote in his Encyclopedia of Gardening: “The chief of the imitative arts is the production of natural or universal beauty. Music, poetry and painting are the principal imitative arts, to which has lately been added landscape-gardening.” And he attributed the origin of that grand-scale naturalism to Kent. “Had Kent never exterminated the bounds of regularity, never actually traversed the way to freedom of manner, would any of [the more recent] celebrated artists have found it of themselves?”

Without Kent, he doubted the capability of Lancelot Brown.

Kent matured his gardening talent at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, in the 1730s. There he carved a pioneering Arcadian vision in which the river Styx flows from its source beneath a grotto to divide an artificial valley. It was bridged by a concept – a link between the libertarians of ancient Greece and modern Britain. If that sounds political, the guidebooks made certain it was so. The Temple-Grenville family spawned four prime ministers in the Liberal cause, losing America through sharing the joys of taxation. But they had time for relaxation: the Temple of Venus, with a pleasuring couch and wall paintings too risqué to have been recorded, was part of Kent’s Garden of Love.

Glory of Saint Julian’ in the church of San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi

Kent’s ‘Glory of Saint Julian’ in the church of San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi, Rome

This summer the main entrance to Stowe House, Kent’s North Hall, will be restored. His patron Lord Cobham shall once more gleam from the ceiling, a career soldier shown as the inheritor of the bellicose chattels of Mars, though the sword should really be hedge clippers as he was an even more committed gardener than warrior. The modern bright white paint will be gone from the frieze and windows, replaced by a stone colour to reinstate Kent’s monolithic grandeur.

Paint historian Patrick Baty took 157 samples to identify the original scheme, working out whether a drawing by Kent of the room was fully realised: “Paint analysis reveals so much more than colour. I was able to demonstrate that William Kent’s laid-flat plan was correct and that there had originally been sculpture niches on the south wall. These had been covered over by 1845. Today, you’d never know they had existed.”

Because his gardens and buildings didn’t stand still, Kent keeps surprising us through such discoveries. He created a wellspring of material that influenced the remainder of the Georgian age. The sheer range of his work can be gauged through the new 656-page volume bearing his name.

To get to the essence of Kent is tougher. His rangy ebullience reminds me of an aphorism of Yorkshire folk that they “say what they like and like what they bloody well say”. I suspect many will very much like what Kent’s vigorous designs bloody well say.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

The exhibition “William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain” runs at the V&A in London from March 22 until July 13

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