London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

William Kent and the Designing Georgian Britain at the V&A Museum, London.

Thursday, 6th August 2014

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

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

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain” closed with great success, at the V&A Museum, London. A collaboration between the V&A and the Bard Graduate Center, “William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain” explores the life and work of William Kent (1685-1748), the most important architect and designer of early Georgian Britain.

The V&A Museum exhibition celebrates the ability of William Kent in designing the nation, a production spanning over four decades (1709-48) when Britain was defined Georgian: it was a new country with the act of union with Scotland (1707) and the accession of a new Hanoverian Royal Family (1714).

Kent was able to master several different media: from painting, to sculpture, including architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardening.

The V&A Museum exhibition demonstrates how Kent’s artistic cleverness and creativity led him to play a dominant role in defining British taste and a new design aesthetic for the period. Many of his most celebrated works can still be seen in Britain country houses.

The William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain exhibition brought together nearly 200 object of Kent’s coming both from private collections and from the V&A’s own collection. Works on display consists of architectural drawings for prominent buildings such as the Treasury (1732–37) and Horse Guards (1745–59) at Whitehall, spectacular gilt furniture from Houghton Hall (1725-35) and Chiswick House (1727-38), designs for landscape gardens at Rousham (1738–41) and Stowe (c.1728-40; c.1746-47), as well as paintings, illustrated books and Kent’s model for the Royal palace that was never built (1735), demonstrating the versatility of the ‘Kentian’ style.

At that time a travel to Italy was needful for artists, therefore Kent lived in the country where he came under the influence of Italian Baroque art, the splendours of the Roman palazzi and the architectural style of Andrea Palladio. From 1709 to 1719, he studied painting in Rome and travelled throughout the country where he met important figures on the Grand Tour such as Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, who would become Kent’s best-known patron, securing him a series of career defining commissions back in Britain. The opening sections of the exhibition showed examples of the drawings which Kent made whilst on tour, including preparatory sketches for early assignments such as his fresco in the church of San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi in Rome (1717).

Kent is perhaps best known for the interiors and landscape gardens he designed for some of Britain’s grand country estates. On display are rare examples of Kent’s richly gilded and upholstered furniture made for Chiswick House, Wanstead House and Houghton Hall, alongside architectural plans and detailed drawings he made for these commissions.

Newly produced films demonstrate the grandeur of his vision for Houghton and Holkham, and reveal his pioneering approach to garden design at Chiswick, Rousham and Stowe. The Kentian style was adopted by many of the most powerful patrons of Georgian Britain who in time secured Kent important Royal commissions and brought him to public attention. One section of the exhibition is devoted to Kent’s designs for the new Royal Family including those he produced for Frederick, Prince of Wales’s Royal Barge (1732), Queen Caroline’s Library at St James’ Palace (1736-37) and the Hermitage in Richmond Gardens (1730-31) together with spectacular examples of silver including a chandelier commissioned for the Royal palace in Hanover.

The exhibition also examined Kent’s projects for the redesign of Georgian London. On display were architectural renderings and elevations for the facade of Horse Guards (1753) which show Kent’s lasting impact on the appearance of London today. Other architectural projects were never realised including the proposals he submitted for a new House of Parliament (1733–40) and interiors for the House of Lords at Westminster (1735-36), designs for which are on display.

The year 2014 marks the tercentenary of the Hanoverian accession to the throne, a crucial moment in which the new British nation created an original sense of style that is still recognised across the world today. The exhibition is one of many events taking place across Britain and Germany in celebration of the 300th anniversary.

Organised by the Bard Graduate Center, New York City and the V&A Museum, “William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain” is the third in a series of research collaborations between the two institutions that re-examines the great tastemakers of Georgian Britain (James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, 2006-7 and Thomas Hope, 2008).

Curators were Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word & Image, V&A, and Dr. Susan Weber, Director of the Bard Graduate Center.

The exhibition opened from September 2013 at the Bard Graduate Center, New York City and then arrived at the V&A Museum. Founded in 1993 in New York City by Dr. Susan Weber, the Bard Graduate Center, is a leading world centre of international study and exhibition center of Bard College, has aimed to become the leading graduate institution for the study of the cultural history of the material world.

The exhibition has been generously supported by The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts. With thanks to the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of The Selz Foundation.

“William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain” was at the V&A Museum, South Kensington, London from the 22nd March until 13th July 2014.

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