A new collaboration between the V&A and the Bard Graduate Center will examine the life and work of William Kent (1685-1748), the leading architect and designer of early Georgian Britain. The exhibition will celebrate Kent’s oeuvre over four decades (1709-48) when Britain defined itself as a new nation with the accession of a new Hanoverian Royal Family.
Kent was a polymath, turning his hand to painting, sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardening. The exhibition will demonstrate how Kent’s artistic ingenuity and inventiveness led him to play a dominant role in defining British taste and a new design aesthetic for the period.
The exhibition will bring together nearly 200 examples of William Kent’s work including 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 and illustrated books, demonstrating the versatility of the ‘Kentian’ style. Many of his most renowned works still survive in country houses around Britain and the exhibition will draw together important loans from private collections alongside objects from the V&A’s own collection.
Like many of his contemporaries, Kent travelled to Italy 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 careerdefining commissions back in Britain. The opening sections of the exhibition will show 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 will be 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. Newlyproduced documentary films will demonstrate the grandeur of his vision for Houghton 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 will be 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 commissioned for the Royal palaces in Hanover.
The exhibition will also examine Kent’s projects for the redesign of Georgian London. On display will be 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 will be shown.
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. To celebrate William Kent’s creative ingenuity and to demonstrate the scope of his influence on British design, the V&A will be working with a number of key sites across the UK, recognising his talent as a leading British tastemaker.