Architecture, interior decoration, painting, sculpture design, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardens. William Kent touched it all. And all of it he excelled in some degree or other.
The V&A is currently holding an exhibition jointly organized with The Bard Graduate Center, New York City on the life and works of William Kent.
Albeit from humble origins, he managed to secure royal and noble patrons (he met Lord Burlington whilst on the Grand Tour and went onto become his longlife patron and friend) and his career coincided with a phenomenal increase in country house building in England.
John Fowler (the acclaimed 20th interior designer) described him as the “first great English decorator” and it’s probably here together with architecture, a champion of the Palladian Style, where he most shines.
Houghton Hall in Norfolk is one of the most magnificent examples. Kent took complete charge of the interiors and the sense of Italian luxury and splendour still survives intact . Rich velvets, damasks, furniture, picture frames, paintings, chimney pieces, all of it designed by him in a successive controlled crescendo of rooms.
A short distance from Houghton is Holkham Hall, seat to the Earls of Leicester and another superb example of Palladian Architecture. Here Kent is responsible for the splendid Marble Hall, its sophisticated enfilade of rooms (offering continuity rather than increasing grandeur), the serene gallery room to host the Viscount’s Grand Tour trophies and the rich sequence of wall hangings reminding neighbouring Houghton.
In Chiswick House he took charge mostly of the ceiling paintings, much of the furniture and the decoration of the summer parlour. He was also responsible for the garden design which has been since then considered the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement.
The exhibition is somehow disappointing. The space is rather small, the pieces of furniture on display (otherwise magnificent in their intended setting) seem out of place and it concedes too much preponderance to areas (drawing in particular) where Kent wasn’t necessarily at his best.
William Kent should be enjoyed amongst the walls of Houghton, Holkham, or Chiswick House or promenading in the gardens of Stowe and Rousham.
It’s the exhibition catalogue however the star of this show. A gigantic 700 pages full of erudition and splendor giving us an accurate insight into the life and works of the man who transformed Georgian Britain.
The exhibition runs until 13th of July.
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