Master of many trades yet professional of none, William Kent’s designs set the pace for 18th century style
In the same room in which David Bowie’s career was celebrated last year, the V&A is now staging the first ever major show on the work of another icon of British style, William Kent. Subtitled ‘Designing Georgian Britain’, the show tackles the major themes of Kent’s life – which include the shifting political landscape, the role of patronage in design, and the shared language of the visual arts.
The bandwagon of early 18th century British taste, highly decorated and extravagantly gilded, was designed by Kent and ridden by him to maximum effect. His career was extraordinarily varied, leaving the impression that he must have been supremely versatile as a designer, and deftly opportunistic. To modern eyes he might look at times to have spread himself too thin, a jack of all trades but master of none, but this show proves otherwise.
We start with Kent’s early years in Italy, cultivating wealthy patrons on the Grand Tour and trying to establish himself as a decorative painter. We see him returning to Britain to design furniture, theatrical sets and costumes, and funerary monuments. Then we have his great schemes of country house decoration: Holkham, Houghton and – less well known – Wanstead and Raynham.
The elaborate Kentian chairs, tables and mirrors are all here. But the tone changes with a shift to London; we see Kent as the visionary designer of an emerging world city. Here are his grand town houses and his unbuilt project for a new House of Parliament – and a spectacular model of a royal palace in Richmond, never before publicly displayed.
At the end, almost as a vision of the afterlife, we have Kent as the designer of Elysium, the heavenly landscape. This, perhaps, is his greatest legacy. Films bring the landscapes of Rousham, Claremont and Stowe to life.
The common thread in Kent’s work, which ties this show together, is that he remained at heart a graphic draughtsman
The common thread in Kent’s work, which ties this show together, is that he remained at heart a graphic draughtsman. In his drawings he reimagined a version of Italy which became recognisably British. These, rather than the furniture and pictures here, are surely the truest reflection of his personality. He could be witty and light-hearted, or deeply serious. Sometimes these moods reveal themselves on the same sheet of paper, a sober Palladian facade enlivened by doodled caricatures in the margins.
The exhibition raises interesting questions for architects. It is hard to imagine how he could build so much without an architectural office, though he collaborated with architects, sculptors and other designers.
But perhaps most of all, this show questions the role of the amateur. Kent is the opposite of the professional architect, his career developing through a chameleon-like adaptability rather than by following a more academic, single-minded route. As we become ever more specialised, visit this exhibition and note: professionalism has its limits.
George Saumarez Smith is a director of Adam Architecture
William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain
To 13 July
V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL