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The genius of Kent

Published 3 March 2014

As the V&A explores the influential career of William Kent this season, we explore three works that testify to the abiding achievements of 18th-century Britain’s most versatile artist and designer.

  • The painted interior

    Burlington House, Piccadilly
    In 1709 William Kent, having broken off an apprenticeship as a coach painter, secured sponsorship to travel and study in Italy. By the time he met Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, in 1714, he was an established artist, making a name for himself with his fresco work at the church of San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi in Rome. Recognising his potential, Lord Burlington brought Kent back to England in 1719 to engage him on the decoration of his rebuilt house on Piccadilly, today home to the RA.

  • Detail from 'Assembly of the Gods', 1720, at the RA

    Detail from 'Assembly of the Gods', 1720, at the RA

    © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • As the protégé of Burlington, Kent found himself part of a revolution in British architecture that was based on a reaction to the ‘excesses’ of the Baroque and a desire to return to the true principles of Roman Classical design. Burlington House was intended to embody the new Palladian ideal and Kent was set to work producing a number of ceilings in an appropriate Classical style. Remarkably, despite extensive later remodelling and redecorating, two of Kent’s ceiling paintings here survive – a circular canvas, The Glorification of Inigo Jones (1719-20), now set into the middle of the staircase ceiling, and Assembly of the Gods (1720) over the present Slaughter Room. Most intriguingly, however, a decorative fresco in the coving of the Saloon that was painted over in 1771 has been partially revealed as part of a programme of restoration. Visitors can now glimpse Kent’s figures emerging from obscurity. What he had begun at the RA was to culminate in his masterful interiors at Houghton Hall.

  • Architecture

    Holkham Hall, Norfolk
    Following his return from Italy, Kent underwent a gradual metamorphosis from painter to designer of interiors, and from designer to fully fledged architect. He created his first lavish and unified interiors at Kensington Palace from 1722 and went on to execute a series of major private works, as well as a handful of significant public buildings (including the Horse Guards in Whitehall, completed after his death).

  • The Marble Hall, 1729, at Holkam Hall

    The Marble Hall, 1729, at Holkam Hall

    Courtesy of the Holkham Estate

  • Holkham Hall remains the grandest of William Kent’s private commissions. Kent’s involvement in the design was the result of a long friendship with Thomas Coke, the future Earl of Leicester, whom he had first met in Rome in 1714, accompanying him on a subsequent tour of northern Italy. In 1729 Kent was brought in to work up designs for Holkham Hall and its park as part of Coke’s plan to transform his ‘barren estate’ into a heroic Classical landscape.

    Holkham’s sober Palladian exterior gives little hint of the treat that awaits the visitor on passing through the entrance vestibule. The Marble Hall (1729, above), with its sweeping stair rising to a piano nobile encircled by a dazzling screen of pink alabaster columns, is a space of breathtaking beauty and is arguably Kent’s masterpiece. The hall derives its power by balancing tensions between the Palladian style – with its Roman motifs, such as the deeply coffered plaster ceiling – and the Baroque, expressed by the sweeping staircase, the screen of columns and the dramatic handling of space.

  • Landscape design

    Stowe, Buckinghamshire
    It was Kent’s revolutionary approach to landscape design that famously led Horace Walpole to declare that he ‘leaped the fence, and saw that all Nature was a Garden’. Walpole attributed Kent’s skill in creating naturalistic landscapes to the ‘pencil of his imagination’ and, indeed, his sketches for gardens are exquisite works of art. It is these designs that represent the most unexpected and beguiling aspect of Kent’s artistic output. During a period of 25 years, between 1724 and 1748, he worked on 24 sites, creating informal picturesque landscapes, which he then filled with temples, lodges, gates, pavilions, grottoes and monuments in every conceivable style.

  • The Temple of Ancient Virtue, 1734, at Stowe.

    The Temple of Ancient Virtue, 1734, at Stowe.

    © Martin Fletcher

  • From the 1730s Kent designed a series of highly original and unusual garden buildings at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. He and the owner, Viscount Cobham, conceived the idea of a poetic landscape with each structure assuming a political or allegorical meaning. A secluded valley – the Elysian Fields – was populated by various curious buildings, including the Temple of Ancient Virtue (1734), modelled on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, and the Temple of British Worthies, an open exedra featuring the busts of native poets, philosophers, statesmen and monarchs.

    William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain is at the V&A, London from 22 March – 13 July 2014.