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Installation image of William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

William Kent: An Imperial Revolutionary?

21 March 2014 Charlie Kenber

“Perhaps Kent didn’t realise he was going to be designing an Olympic women’s volleyball court, but he did!”

William Kent was a true polymath, presumably to the frustration of his contemporaries. A painter, sculptor, architect, designer, interior decorator, metalworker, illustrator and landscape gardener, there were few things he turned his hand to that he didn’t master. It is unsurprising then that he became such a key figure in defining British taste for the Georgian era.

The remarkable diversity of the man is the focus of a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Although Kent is perhaps best known for his work designing interiors and landscape gardens for grand country estates, the exhibition instead focuses primarily on his portraiture, architectural designs and illustrated books, before exploring his influence in the development of London as an imperial capital.

It is this diversity which is of most interest to the exhibition’s lead curator, Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word & Image at the V&A. Not only is this the first major exhibition of William Kent there has ever been, but Julius is also trying to challenge expectations. As he tells me, although the exhibition will of course appeal to “the National Trust member…we also want to shock them!”

“If people are expecting to come to a show about Georgian good taste – about Chippendale and mahogany and ‘brown stuff’ as curators of French and Italian furniture always called English furniture,” Julius continues, “then they’re in for a nasty surprise! Kent loved gold furniture, he loved bling, he loved this flashy look.”

Kent’s challenges to convention are most pronounced when it comes to his role in developing London. He was “designing for a new monarchy, a new fashionable society, a new court, a new London and a new nation. Britain was to overtake Spain and France as the great imperial centre of the world. London needed new buildings to reflect that.”

Therefore, “the second half of the show is about London, and deliberately it’s revisionism. You expect to find beautiful furniture from country houses, but that stops half way through this show and we talk about urban design and urban space and bigger political questions.”

"Who leads taste, what is an appropriate national style, how do you build a national capital, and how do you repackage an imported monarch? It’s what we nowadays call branding: so these are all questions that never go away. We try and say that it’s also about that dynamic of how taste is created, and that there is a political agenda behind the opportunities that come along.”

The exhibition is suitably timely. Not only does it fall on the tercentenary of 1714, the year recognised as marking the beginning of the Georgian period, with the accession of the Hanoverian dynasty in the form of George I, but also 1707 saw the Union of England and Scotland – an event of particular relevance given this year’s independence referendum. Additionally the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713 saw Britain emerge victorious, ready to embark on a campaign of empire building.

Both of these changes created a Britain crying out for its own style. For Julius, Kent’s work is “a direct response to a call to arms by Robert Shaftesbury. The first object in the exhibition is Shaftesbury’s letter on design, published in 1714. It speaks of this new nation and the need for a new palace, a new Whitehall, a new Houses of Parliament…this was the time to say something about Georgian Britain. There was definitely a challenge to the young wealthy to lead taste in the absence of court.”

The design exhibition finishes however with gardens. As Julius concedes, “everyone who knows Kent knows about his gardens. We could have done a whole show just on gardens.” Instead this branch of his work is elegantly left until the end of the exhibition, in a section inspired by Horace Walpole’s words, “Kent was the father of modern gardening…Mahomet imagined an Elysium…Kent created many.”

The displays then not only examine “the man who invented the English landscape garden,” but also bring to light his important role in defining a new imperial nation, with a global outlook and sense of superiority to match.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain is on at the V&A from 22nd March until 13th July. Admission costs £8, with concessions available. Further information and booking are available here.

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