Chiswick House & Gardens feature some of Kent's most important designs in early Georgian Britain.
William Kent (1685-1748) was the leading architect and designer of early Georgian Britain. A polymath, he turned his hand from painting to designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardens. His life coincided with a major turning point in British history - the accession of the new Hanoverian Royal Family in 1714. This exhibition reveals how William Kent came to play a leading role in establishing a new design aesthetic for this crucial period when Britain defined itself as a new nation.
Chiswick House Blue Velvet Room ceiling with the painted decoration attributed to William Kent
William Kent Background
Kent was originally from Bridlington in Yorkshire, but like many of his contemporaries was drawn by the allure of Italy. From 1709 to 1719 he studied in Rome, copying Old Master paintings and learning the techniques of etching and engraving. He travelled throughout Italy where he met important figures such as Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington. Lord Burlington would become his best-known patron and secure him a series of career defining commissions back in Britain. Part of Kent's appeal for these English clients was a powerful nostalgia for their Italian tours. A jovial house guest of his patrons, 'Kentino' or 'the Signor' (as he was affectionately known) had the habit of breaking into Italian in his letters. The heavy, gilded style of furniture and interiors that took his name - 'Kentian' - was largely inspired by the richly decorated interiors of the Italian Baroque palaces that Kent's patrons had been taught to understand and appreciate during their Grand Tours.
But the most significant meeting was between Kent and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington which sowed the seeds for a life long friendship and patronage and he returned to England with Burlington in 1719. Back home, Kent continued to paint but under Burlington's encouragement he branched out into architecture. It was through his collaboration with Burlington that he has come to be remembered as the central architect of the revived Palladian style in England.
From Painter to Architect of Interiors and Gardens
By 1725 William Kent had begun to extend his art from ceiling and wall paintings to the design of their settings. Kent was the first British designer to tackle an interior as a whole. Picture frames, door surrounds, fireplaces and furnishings started appearing in his design drawings. Kent designed interiors for several well-known houses, including Burlington's own villa at Chiswick. He also designed interiors and furnishings for 'power houses' - the London residences of leading political and court figures. In the intensely competitive pinnacle of society, these houses were stages on which hosts and guests performed to set new standards in hospitality and taste.
Kent's career coincided with a phenomenal increase in country house building and development. The Georgian governing class spent half the year in London, but also maintained a country seat where they entertained their peers. Owners also allowed respectable visitors to view their houses and collections. In this way Kent's interiors would have been experienced by many.
Blue Velvet Room ceiling with the painted decoration attributed to William Kent
Kent applied this style to several public buildings in London for which Burlington's patronage secured him the commissions: the Royal Mews at Charing Cross, (1731-33, demolished in 1830), the Treasury buildings in Whitehall (1733-37), the Horse Guards building in Whitehall. Perhaps the most striking example of his work however is Burlington's own villa at Chiswick which is regarded as the first and one of the finest examples of Neo-Palladian architecture in England.
However Kent's greatest legacy lies elsewhere as the father of the English landscape garden. Yet Kent was no horticulturalist - he envisioned the landscape as a classical painting, carefully arranged to maximize the artistic effects of light, shape, and colour. His most important gardening creations include Stowe and Rousham but perhaps most importantly Chiswick House Gardens.
Chiswick House Gardens
During the 1730s Lord Burlington decided to open up and unify the setting of the house, probably on the advice of William Kent. Kent had a 'pictorial’ approach to garden design; unlike previous designers, he conceived gardens as semi-naturalistic pictures. By 1742 the western half of the Grove had been felled and a large lawn created, lined by alternating cypresses and stone urns and closed at its northern end by a semicircular hedge known as the Exedra. Today, the statues in the Exedra are modern copies with the originals in the House. The Cascade is another Kent design for Lord Burlington. A number of design sketches by William Kent survive which show that various options where considered before a naturalistic rocky structure with three arches was decided upon, inspired by examples that both men had seen in Italian Renaissance gardens. Unfortunately, the cascade was not operational and in 1748 the hydraulics were pronounced a failure. It remained dry and neglected until modern technology and restoration in the spirit of the original made it fully operational in 1996/7.