In his recent TV essay on brutalism, Jonathan Meades railed against the Georgian era as representing a kind of anodyne British good taste against which anything more weird or daring or ugly is always unfavourably compared. He had a point, but neglected to mention that exactly the same debate raged in Georgian Britain. Specifically between the people who wanted to define taste – in architecture, ornament and ‘the arts’ – and those who didn’t want a bunch of Italy-worshipping poshos telling them what colour to paint their walls. Tastemaker-in-chief was Lord Burlington, an aristo architect whose influence was wide-reaching. William Kent, a fellow Yorkshireman, enjoyed Burlington’s patronage as a designer of interiors, gardens and as an architect. Kent was also in demand with a string of wealthy clients, including Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole.
If you’ve persevered in reading this far, you may have deduced what the problem is with this V&A show: it has to do quite a lot of explaining to set the scene. Kent isn’t a household name. He fell into architecture as his interior design work became more assured, but even his most prestigious public commissions, such as London’s Horse Guards, are pretty unsophisticated. Hogarth made fun of him as Burlington’s lackey, and tastes moved on, as they always do.
Kent’s greatest talent lay in garden design, but that’s under-represented here. Instead there are beautiful plans and elevations, some fine models and some rather out-of-context furniture. Really, this is an exhibition about aesthetic commodification: something which should resonate in the post-New Labour era. Kent is an important figure in defining what we know as Georgian style, and what we understand by ‘designer’ as opposed to craftsman. Unfortunately this owes more to his ambition and malleability than his genius. An object lesson in the co-opting of art and taste by politicians and players? Definitely. Entertaining? Not so much.