Courtesy Sotheby’s Picture Library
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© National Portrait Gallery, London
© Philadelphia Museum of Art The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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.
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William Kent was Georgian Britain’s most celebrated designer. His bold artistic vision was responsible for a revolution in British building and interior design. Kent started his career as a sign painter in his native Yorkshire. He later travelled to Italy to study art and design, where the ornate Baroque palaces proved a significant influence. He brought this style back to England, satisfying a nostalgia among the aristocracy for their grand tours of Europe.
Kent’s Italianate style came to be closely associated with British identity at the start of the Hanoverian dynasty. The newly-installed (and distinctly German) monarchy associated themselves closely with Kent in order to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. He enjoyed the Royal Family’s patronage for the duration of his career.
Designing Georgian Britain provides a comprehensive survey of Kent’s remarkable abilities and output. He excelled at any art form to which he turned his hand, including painting, furniture design, interior design, architecture and landscape gardening. Kent became known for opulence, glamour and showmanship, but unfortunately, the exhibition fails to adequately capture these qualities.
Individual pieces dazzle - notably the beautiful inlaid marble tabletops - but by isolating them from Kent’s original interiors and presenting them on a matte grey backdrop, they feel a little lost. There are also far too many etchings and drawings. While this provides an interesting insight into his work, you’d get a much better idea of Kent’s accomplishments by visiting one of the buildings he worked on, like Chiswick House or Hampton Court Palace.
For more art in plain English, check out http://www.curatedlondon.co.uk