William Kent Designing Georgian Britain V&A Exhibit

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William Kent by William Aikman. Image National Portrait Gallery, London, used with permission.

William Kent by William Aikman. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Marking the 300th anniversary of the accession of the House of Hanover to the British throne in 1714, the Victoria & Albert Museum presents William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain.

Britain declared itself a new nation with new ideas and new tastes. Foremost among the taste makers was architect/designer William Kent. In his introduction, Lead Curator Julius Bryant described Kent as ″the maverick, wild, creative artist and lover of the good life.″

This is the third in a series of research collaborations between the Bard Graduate Center and the V&A to look at the great designers of Georgian Britain. Previous exhibitions focused on James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (2006) and Thomas Hope (2008). Julius Bryant and Dr. Susan Weber are joint curators for the V&A and the Bard Graduate Centre, respectively.

The V&A acknowledges the support of the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts and the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of the Selz Foundation without whom exhibitions like this are not possible.

Versatile and Ingenious – From the Houses of Parliament to Olympic Vollyball Courts

William Kent's design for Horse Guards, London. Image Frances Spiegel 2014 with permission from V&A Museum.

William Kent’s design for Horse Guards, London. Image by Frances Spiegel 2014, with permission from V&A Museum.

The exhibition looks at the versatility and ingenuity of the architect through more than two hundred items. Versatile and innovative, Kent’s oeuvre includes sculpture, paintings and illustrated books, gilt furniture and silver.

He was responsible for the lavish interiors of Chiswick House and Houghton Hall and the beautiful landscape gardens at Holkham Hall, Rousham and elsewhere.

Architectural drawings show the wide scope of his plans for important London buildings such as the Treasury and Horse Guards at Whitehall.

Julius Bryant tells us, ″when Kent designed Horse Guards he didn’t realise he was designing an Olympic women’s volleyball court.″ (Horse Guards is where the Olympic volleyball took place.) Also on display are the ambitious but unsuccessful plans for a redesign of the Houses of Parliament.

William Kent – Opportunist or Oracle of Good Taste?

Born in Yorkshire in 1685, Kent studied painting in Italy for ten years between 1709 and 1719. During this time his most influential supporters included Thomas Coke, who later became Earl of Leicester and commissioned Holkham Hall, and the extremely wealthy Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington.

Burlington was Kent’s friend and sponsor for some thirty years. Although Kent appears very successful, throughout his entire working life he relied on his well-heeled patrons for financial backing.

Design for the monument to Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey, London. Image Victoria and Albert Museum used with permission.

Design for the monument to Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey, London. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, used with permission.

In his book, William Kent: Architect, Designer, Opportunist, Timothy Mowl describes Kent as the ″greatest designer of the eighteenth century.″ He also describes Kent as an ‘opportunist‘ whose work was ″often third-rate or disastrous.

Julius Bryant tells us: ″We don’t know what his fourth-rate work was like because it may not have survived. He did so many things… theatre sets, costume designs, we don’t know just how bad he could get. Some things that don’t really feature much in the exhibition are his paintings… he trained as a painter, but we only have three oil paintings by him.

The point of curating an exhibition is to show an artist at his best, and not at his typical. So, in a book, say, a biography, you could indeed find fault, but when you’re showing objects to people you have to choose the best. He certainly wasn’t England’s Raphael. We’re not pretending that at all, but it’s absolutely right to call him an opportunist, and his career would not have happened without his social skills.″

Highlights of the Exhibition

Visitors to Westminster Abbey will see Kent’s memorial to physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

The exhibition includes designs for the monument together with a small-scale model, based on Kent’s designs, of a reclining figure by leading Dutch-born sculptor John Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770).

John Michael Rysbrack's model, to Kent's design for memorial in Westminster Abbey. Image Frances Spiegel 2013, with permission from V&A Museum.

John Michael Rysbrack’s model, to Kent’s design for memorial in Westminster Abbey. Image by Frances Spiegel 2013, with permission from V&A Museum.

It was common practise for sculptors to create fired clay models in preparation for important works, although in many cases the models themselves are artworks in their own right.

Julius Bryant tells Decoded Past that this is his favourite piece: “It’s totally fascinating. When we got it into the exhibition, with the very special lighting that we don’t normally have, it looked completely fresh and different.

The exhibition also features remarkable examples of Kentian furniture such as the console table designed for Kent’s life-long patron Lord Burlington.

One of a pair made for Chiswick House, the table carved by John Boson, imitates the Italian examples popular in Italy during the 16th century.

The tables are now at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

Console table for Chiswick House. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from V&A.

Console table for Chiswick House. Image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from V&A.

Today Chiswick House is one of London’s most popular visitor destinations. Inspired by designs by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, Burlington started work on it in 1724 following his second Grand Tour to Italy. He commissioned Kent to design its interior decoration and furniture.

The exhibition also features designs submitted to the new Royal Family including a Royal Barge for Frederick Prince of Wales, a library at St James’ Palace for Queen Caroline, and the Hermitage in Richmond Gardens.

Kent’s most visible legacies in London are the Treasury building and Horse Guards, the monarch’s ceremonial entrance into Whitehall from St. Jame’s Park.

More from Art Historian Julius Bryant

Art Historian and lead curator Julius Bryant spoke to Decoded Past about the exhibition.

Decoded Past: ″There are many renowned Georgian architects and designers, such as Robert and James Adam, John Nash and Thomas Chippendale, so why was William Kent chosen as the subject of this exhibition?

Julius Bryant: ″We have a strong collection of his designs in the V&A and some very important furniture of his. He’s about much more than architecture, and although architecture is the mother of all the arts, for us in the V&A, as a museum of art and design, it enabled us to present an exhibition across the full range including architectural drawings, furniture, silver, sculpture, paintings, gardens and monuments like Westminster Abbey. Kent is the most diverse, more diverse than Robert Adam or John Nash. He’s the most versatile British artist/designer ever.

Decoded Past: ″How long has it taken for this exhibition to come to fruition?

Julius Bryant: ″I proposed it in 2007, but in my previous job I was Chief Curator at English Heritage, so I looked after Chiswick House. I restored rooms and bought back lost furniture for Chiswick House so I had a very intimate familiarity with his work so coming here it was the obvious show to propose.”

Decoded Past: ″With so much material to choose from how do you decide what items to include, and what to exclude?

The Gallery, Chiswick House by William Henry Hunt. Image: Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

The Gallery, Chiswick House by William Henry Hunt. Image: Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees, all rights reserved.

Julius Bryant: ″That’s a very good question. You don’t want to include mediocre work. People are spending £8 on a ticket, they’re giving up their time, they want to be enchanted, impressed, intrigued and motivated to go away and look at other Kent country houses, and see the real thing in its original place. Also you want to surprise people… obviously you choose the best in the categories you first define, like a sort of menu, but you also want to choose things people don’t know, the unfamiliar. So there’s a lot of going to private homes and country houses, getting to know the owners, building a relationship, and eventually asking them if they’d like to lend something. A show like this is dependent upon the goodwill of museum directors, but for most things it’s private houses, individuals and aristocrats. Sometimes they’re very private people who don’t want any publicity at all for security reasons, so you have to build that trust.

Decoded Past: ″This exhibition is the culmination of several years of painstaking research. In the course of that research did you discover anything that contradicted something you previously regarded as fact?

Julius Bryant: ″Certainly, we found lots of new material, drawings that had never been seen before, never been exhibited or photographed. That’s what you expect of an exhibition like this, that there are new objects that people don’t know.

What most surprised me, I think, was during the installation of the exhibition. I’d seen these objects in country houses up against a wall with a lamp on them, but once they came in here with all the spotlights, I’m afraid I was a terrible nuisance. I kept saying ″can you just hold it upside down for a minute… there’s a piece of writing here or a label there″. It might tell you which room it came out of, or which house, or at what time. Then there’s the actual construction, the way they made things. The reason he was so prolific was that he clearly delegated the execution, the making of something, to the craftsmen who were already in the country house, on the estate. So a lot of the discoveries came during the installation in the last couple of weeks.

In terms of overturning established facts, I think the exhibition at large challenges the English prejudice against gilding. I think one reason why this is the first major show on William Kent ever is that people on the whole dislike gold furniture. They think of it as foreign. They like Chippendale, mahogany,… that’s the big change and people will love it or hate it.″

William Kent Exhibit

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain is at the V&A Museum from 22nd March to 13th July 2014. If you go, expect to see the showcased work of a truly versatile artist – and when you return, share your thoughts. What was your favorite piece, and why?

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© Copyright 2014 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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