William Kent was an extraordinarily versatile designer, active in a wide variety of artistic fields, including book illustration, painting, interior design and even costume. He began to practise architecture in about 1730, relatively late in life. At about the same time, he started working as a garden designer, ingeniously integrating architecture within naturalised settings and vistas.
An engaging companion, his career was built upon the support and friendship of rich patrons interested in the arts. Outstanding in this respect was Lord Burlington, the champion of Palladianism, a style of Classical architecture that drew its inspiration from the work of Inigo Jones and the 16th-century Vincentian architect Andrea Palladio. Kent also inventively applied Palladian motifs to his furniture designs.
Kent’s attitude to Palladian proprie-ties was coloured by his experience of Italy, and an interest in visual movement gives many of his Classical buildings a Rococo twist. He worked in the Gothic, too, which he brilliantly explored with a similar irreverence towards verisimilitude of historic form or detail.
William Kent was born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, the son of a prosperous joiner. Of his early life, little is securely known. The patronage of two local gentlemen enabled him to go to Italy in 1709. After a period of travel, he entered the studio of Giuseppe Chiari in Rome to receive formal training as a painter. There, his study of the works of Raphael was to inform his decorative painting.
Once in Italy he attracted new patrons, two of whom bestowed a £40 annuity on him in 1713, with the avowed hope that he might become ‘a great painter’. In return, Kent acted as a collector on their behalf. His most crucial Italian connections, however, were introductions to two English noblemen.
The first of these was the rich and enthusiastic collector of art, Thomas Coke (later Earl of Leicester). He met Kent at Chiari’s studio in 1714, and then travelled with him. By the time Coke left Italy in 1717, the two men had established a lifelong friendship. Even more important was his introduction-in slightly mysterious circumstances-to the future arbiter of English architectural taste, Lord Burlington. He persuaded Kent to return to England in 1719 as a painter, and was a crucial figure in furthering his career.
On his arrival, Kent was swept into Burlington’s circle and, in 1722, through his friend’s interest, was commissioned to decorate the first of several interiors at Kensington Palace. This won Kent the enmity of William Hogarth, the son-in-law of the King’s Sergeant Painter, Sir James Thornhill, who was overlooked in this project. At about the same time, his artistic career started to undergo a remarkable metamorphosis.
In 1720-21, Lord Burlington greatly expanded his collection of architectural drawings with the purchase of works by Palladio and Inigo Jones. These drawings, as well as his experience of Italy, were to furnish Burlington with the ideas that brought his Palladian style to maturity. They also became the object of serious study for Kent, who, in 1724, was asked by Burlington to edit an architectural volume entitled The Designs of Inigo Jones with some Additional Designs (1727). Ideas from them began to be expressed in his furniture, which is first recorded in drawn designs for the saloon at Houghton, dated 1725.
Kent was continuously in government service from 1726, when he was appointed Master Carpenter to the Board of Works through the interest of Lord Burlington. This, and the other appointments he managed to secure, were to involve him in several notable projects in Whitehall during the 1730s that allowed him to cut his teeth as an architect and designer.
These works included the Royal Mews (1731-33, now demolished) and the Treasury Buildings (1733-37). Kent and Lord Burlington also invested great efforts in designing new Houses of Parliament, although the plans were never realised. Kent additionally worked on Kew House for Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1731-35 (demolished 1802) and a proposed new royal palace at Richmond.
Among his more surprising official responsibilities was the restoration of Rubens’ celebrated painted ceiling in the Banqueting House, Whitehall, in 1734. Shortly before his death, he designed the adjacent Horse Guards.
Landscape and architecture
Kent’s private architectural commissions were relatively few, and many of the most important were bound up with his career as a garden and landscape designer from about 1730. In his landscaping work, Kent reacted against the formal garden of the previous century and created informal compositions: he was credited by Horace Walpole in 1780 as having ‘leapt the fence and seen that all nature was a garden’. At sites such as Stowe and Rousham, he created naturalised parks studded with buildings and cascades or other features in painterly compositions.
In addition to his neo-Classical work, Kent also produced some important essays in the Gothic style. These include work at Hampton Court in 1732 and the remodelling in about 1733 of the major 15th-century episcopal palace at Esher Place. His Gothic work is fantastical in character, with no attempt at historical accuracy of detail. As such, it reflects a fascinating alternative to the antiquarian view of medieval building. Kent died in 1748, and was buried in Lord Burlington’s vault at Chiswick.