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  William Kent (bap. 1686, d. 1748), by William Aikman, c.1723–5 William Kent (bap. 1686, d. 1748), by William Aikman, c.1723–5
Kent, William (bap. 1686, d. 1748), painter, architect, and designer of gardens and interior furnishings, was baptized William Cant in St Mary's Church, Bridlington, Yorkshire, on 1 January 1686, the son of William Cant and his wife, Esther Shimmings.

Family and education

In his will registered on 25 June 1739 William Cant senior was described as a joiner, and he may have been responsible for the joinery in his house—Kent's birthplace—at 45 The Toft, Bridlington. Cant was no ‘humble’ craftsman, but obviously of local standing and some affluence; his son probably attended the town's grammar school in the Bayle. Apprenticeship lists in Hull do not support George Vertue's claim that Kent was apprenticed to a coach and house painter there in 1701; Vertue may be confusing the support given to Kent by friends in Bridlington with an apprenticeship taken out in the City of London. Vertue further reports that Kent broke this apprenticeship in 1706: if true, this may imply a self-willed young man.

The next two years of Kent's life went unrecorded. He may already have met the antiquary John Talman, possibly through Talman's friend and fellow antiquary Samuel Gale, son of the dean of York. However, it was in Bridlington that Kent had, in Vertue's words, ‘the Good fortune to find some Gentlemen of that Country to promote his studyes, [who] raisd a contribution and recommended him to propper persons at London to direct him to Italy’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.139). These included Kent's first patron, Sir William Wentworth of Bretton Park, West Riding, and Sir Richard Osbaldeston of Hunmanby Hall near Bridlington. This local patronage led to the next and formative stage in the young man's career when in July 1709 Kent (no longer Cant) set sail to Italy in the galley Swallow accompanied by Talman and the Cambridge virtuoso Daniel Lock. Thus by the age of twenty-five Kent had distanced himself from the circumstances of his provincial birth and become a metropolitan friend of the Italophile son of the distinguished architect William Talman.

The Italian scene

The Swallow docked at Leghorn on 15 October 1709, and the trio of travellers arrived in Pisa on 20 October for a month's stay. They were in Florence from 18 November and left that city in April 1710. For Kent this Florentine period was one of the discovery and assimilation of Italian art in churches and private collections. Excursions are recorded to Pistoia and Lucca, and the virtuosi, dealers, and artists in Florence whom they met included the painter Giuseppe Scacciati, the sculptor G. B. Foggini, his pupil Agostino Cornacchini, and the antiquary Lorenzo Magnolfi, who acted as Talman's agent. Talman certainly, and maybe Kent and Lock too, then walked to Rome via Siena to save money. Talman lodged with the German dealer Antonio Axer on the Corso, while Kent and Lock shared lodgings with Thomas Edwards the painter, on the strada Paolina off the Corso; by 1717 Kent had moved along the street to lodge with the painter Giuseppe Pesci. On 9 May 1710 Talman wrote to his father, ‘we are all in separate lodgings, but agree very well, and every Thursday [“ye couriosty day”] we spend in seeing fine palaces, as last Thursday we saw Borghese Palace’ (Parry, letter 78). On 5 July 1710 he wrote again, observing Kent's ‘bashful temper and inexperience in writing’ (ibid., letter 103). By now Kent had probably entered the studio of Giuseppe Chiari (1654–1727) to start formal training as a painter.

As a pupil of Carlo Maratta, Chiari would have looked up to and taught the classicism of Raphael and his school. There would be extensive copying of old masters, notably Guido Reni and Correggio, and obviously study of Raphael's work in the Vatican Loggia, the Farnesina, and the Villa Madama. In the studio with Kent was the Irish painter Henry Trench, who evoked from Vertue an anecdote that illuminates Kent's friendship with Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington and fourth earl of Cork: Lord Burlington in Rome, wrote Vertue, ‘lookt upon’ Kent to be ‘the better painter of the two by much’—and because of this Trench ‘took an occasion to write an expostulatory letter to this noblemen setting forth the difference of meritt on his side, more than Kent, [but to the only effect that] Lord Burlington would read it to Kent, by way of mortification—and mirth’ (Vertue, Note books, 4.163). This smacks of a tale humorously related by Kent himself. No drawings survive from this period in Kent's studio training: at this juncture—around 1710–12—his daily tasks must be recreated from the reports and letters of his friends in Rome. He attended Talman's St Luke's feast for the leading virtuosi in May 1711 [see ] and observed Talman's project for a monumental painting on the subject of ‘Learning & arts are ye chief accomplishments of a Nobleman’ (Parry, letter 183) to be executed by Chiari and Trench. He must have made many excursions, although apparently not to Naples between October and December 1710 with Talman and the portrait painter William Aikman. In March 1712 Kent accompanied Humphry Chetham, a merchant, and Lock to the Villa Aldobrandini; in April he went with Chetham to the Villa Borghese. About this time Kent met Talman's friend Burrell Massingberd of South Ormsby in Lincolnshire, initiating his joint support with his friend Sir John Chester of Chicheley, Buckinghamshire, of a gift of £40 a year in hope ‘of your becoming a great Painter’ (Massingberd to Kent, 14 May 1713, Lincoln Diocesan Archives, 2MM B19A), no less than the Raphaelus secundus.

Kent's apogee as Chiari's pupil was in June 1713, when he was placed second in the second tier of painting classes at the Accademia di S. Luca for a drawing of the Miracle of S. Andrea Avellino, for which he received a silver medal from the pope. This award was trumpeted in England as if he was indeed the second Raphael. All that Rome has to offer of Kent's sojourn there is his Glorification of St Julian, a fresco in the cupola of S. Giuliano dei Fiamminghi in Rome, the contract dated July 1717: it is unknown what Chiari really thought of this decidedly mediocre and conventional composition. However, two British noblemen arrived in Rome who would severally change the whole course of Kent's life, drawing out of him latent interests and passions which hitherto had only been sensed by Talman perhaps. The first was the third earl of Burlington, who was there from 30 September to the end of December 1714, but apparently ill in bed all the time. Apart from Massingberd's exhortation to Kent that ‘Lord Burlington is coming full of money … and loves pictures mightily’ (Massingberd to Kent, 5 July 1714, Lincoln Diocesan Archives, 2MM B19A), there is no evidence of a meeting then. The second nobleman was Thomas Coke of Holkham, who arrived in Rome on 7 February 1714. Kent's introduction to the young Coke, the self-confessed ‘perfect virtuoso and great lover of pictures’ (Ingamells, 225) occurred in Chiari's studio, where Coke had engaged the architect Giacomo Mariari to teach him to draw architecture. When Coke and Kent set off for a companionable tour of northern Italy in June 1714, the artist's interests began to broaden. Kent was both bear leader and collector's agent on this expedition. His journal, ‘Remarks by way of painting & architecture’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. D.1162), begun on 6 July 1714, shows him becoming increasingly observant of architecture and gardens, but not yet attracted to the work of Andrea Palladio, to judge by the single day they spent in Vicenza. Unfortunately, Kent's sketchbook, in which he made ‘sketches of some piece in every place I came’ (Kent to Massingberd, 24 Nov 1714, Lincoln Diocesan Archives, 2MM B19A), is lost. By the time Coke left Italy in June 1717, a lifelong friendship had been cemented.

How Kent began a similar friendship with Burlington is unclear. It is manifest during Burlington's visit to Genoa and the Veneto after August 1719 and when Kent was travelling from Florence to Genoa with Sir William Wentworth on the way home. Writing from Paris on 15 November 1719, Kent recollected his stay with Burlington in Genoa, and in particular how his lordship ‘lik'd my designs so well both painting & Archetecture that he would make me promis at least to begin to paint for him the fierst when I come over’ (Kent to Massingberd, 15 Nov 1719, Lincoln Diocesan Archives, 2MM B19A). Exactly what Kent meant by ‘Archetecture’ is unclear, but he probably referred to interior decoration. A year earlier Kent wrote to Massingberd that he was drawing ‘continualy ornements and archetecture … things yt I think will be necessary for use in England’ (Kent to Massingberd, 15 Nov 1719, Lincoln Diocesan Archives, 2MM B19A), but nearly ten years would pass before he designed an architectural exterior. Nevertheless, Kent, in his plans for the future, must have envisaged architecture proper as a subject for his professional consideration. About October to November 1719 Burlington had told him of plans ‘to get architects to draw all the fine buildings of Palladio’ (ibid.), and there is acknowledgement of the neo-Palladian reformation in architecture taking place in England in Kent's criticism (1719) of the ‘Dam'd Gusto [that is, taste for the baroque] that has been [in England] for this sixty years past’ (ibid.).

Kent's character

So much of Kent's subsequent artistic achievement can be seen as an extension of his idiosyncratic self, not least in his drawings, and in many of the tasks he was happy to execute: a pram for little Dorothy Boyle, a lady's dress ornamented with the five orders of architecture, so that she appeared a ‘walking Palladio in petticoats’ (Lord Ilchester, ed., Lord Hervey and his Friends, 1950, 115–16), the uniform for the bargemen of Frederick, prince of Wales, a dog kennel, a fantastic silver surtout. This man of humble origins, who could never quite shake off the half-educated idiosyncrasy of his spelling and composition, had already earned the sobriquet of ‘il Signor’ when he was welcomed into Burlington House, Piccadilly, the most advanced artistic and fashionable household in London. Clearly Kent had established a personal relationship with Burlington before returning to London, for as early as 30 January 1720, hardly unpacked from ten years in Italy, he could refer to Burlington House as ‘our house’ when reporting Burlington's impending marriage to Lady Dorothy Savile, hoping ‘vertu will grow stronger in our house and architecture will flourish more’ (Kent to Massingberd, Lincoln Diocesan Archives, 2MM B19A). In London Kent met Handel and the musicians of the Italian opera and the newly formed Royal Academy of Music, the poets Alexander Pope and John Gay, and the painter Charles Jervas. The prickly Pope and Lady Burlington loved him as much as anyone, and all consorted and lived in harmony.

Kent's easy-going and warm-hearted familiarity and his fundamentally happy temperament inspired quick affection. Some referred to him as ‘il Kentino’, or ‘the Little Rogue Kent’, or ‘the Honest Signior’. No correspondence better describes Kent's character than that between Kent, Burlington, and Pope. Poet and artist constantly teased each other, variously reporting to each other: Kent to Burlington, November 1738: ‘[Pope is] … the greatest glutton I know … [he] told me of a soupe that must be seven hours a making’ (G. Sherborne, ed., The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 4, 1956, 150); Pope to Burlington: ‘[Come] and eat a mutton stake in the manner of that great Master, Signior Kent’ (ibid., 3, 1956, 517); Pope to Burlington, January 1740: ‘If he [Kent] proceeds in his carnality & carnivoracity, he must expect not to imitate Raphael in anything but his untimely end’; and Pope to Burlington, July 1734: ‘[Kent is] a wild Goth … from a Country which has ever been held no part of christendome’ (ibid., 3, 1956, 417). In Benedetto Luti's Roman portrait of Kent in 1718 the soft features, the open eye, and the double chin of the gourmand and bon-vivant can be recognized; the chins are accentuated in Bartholomew Dandridge's portrait of c.1730, and even more exaggerated in Lady Burlington's sketch of Kent (c.1730s) drawing at a table. These images give a sense of the mirthful character reflected in the witticisms of his drawings and his lively bucolic writing which was so often, as Burlington observed, ‘more allegorical as ever’.

The impulsive Kent was a perfect foil to the austere lord, who was a rigid theorist and learned scholar, the affection of each man for the other being based on the attraction of opposites. Kent's mistress, the fat Drury Lane actress Elizabeth Butler, and their two children, to whom he bequeathed his moneys, is not proof that Kent was only heterosexual. An agreeable companion to Lady Burlington when her lord was on his travels, he became her drawing master, inundating her with news from town when she was away in the country. Unlike others who were patronized by the great, Kent was no sycophant. Nor was he a political creature; indeed he seemed almost apolitical. He confessed as much when he wrote to Burlington in that troubled Jacobite year of 1745 of his solitary enthusiasm reading a book on the Farnese Gardens and the plans of the Palatine: ‘as Politicks are not my Genius, it diverts me much now at nights to look and read of these fine remains of antiquity’ (Burlington collection, Chatsworth). If his lord was at least a closet Jacobite—and even this is uncertain—Kent was neither concerned, nor reported as such; there is no evidence that either he or Burlington was a freemason.

Kent as painter

In fulfilment of his prophecy in November 1719 that he would ‘feirst’ start work at Burlington House, Kent was soon proposing a sketch for the Great Room with ornaments al Italiano. By late 1720 a Banquet of the Gods was painted for the ceiling and probably grisaille ornaments for the cove: in the adjacent room was an Assembly of the Gods. If contrasted with Sebastiano Ricci's oils on the staircase, or the displaced Antonio Pellegrini canvases now at Narford Hall, Norfolk, Kent was immature in composition and figural work. Surprisingly it was not Sir James Thornhill, the king's sergeant painter, but Kent, who in March 1722 was offered the commission to decorate the new Cupola Room in Kensington Palace, followed by the king's drawing-room (1722–3), the privy chamber and king's bedchamber (1723), the presence chamber and council chamber (1724), and the king's gallery, great and little closets, and staircase (1725–7). The commission was Burlington's doing, arousing violent enmity from William Hogarth, Thornhill's son-in-law, and at once set up opposing camps: those committed to Burlington's Italianate programme of reformation appearing on one side, and those promoting Lord Harley's native British one, including the architect James Gibbs, Thornhill, and Charles Bridgeman the gardener, on the other.

The novelty of the Cupola Room was to set above the chimneypiece a marble relief by J. M. Rysbrack of a copy of a Roman marriage in the Palazzo Sacchetti (the reliefs in the stone hall and dining-room at Houghton are distinguished later examples, also by Rysbrack). Both the design for the Kensington drawing-room, and that signed and dated 1725 for the saloon at Houghton, are still late Roman baroque in composition and colouring. However, the ceiling of the Kensington presence chamber (and bedchamber and council chamber; destr.) are in the antique grotesque manner first recommended to Kent by Talman in 1717. Chiari would have approved, for the style is Raphaelesque, deriving from the decoration of the Villa Madama via both Kent's own firsthand study and drawings after antique Roman ceilings by Francesco Bartoli specially commissioned by Coke in 1718. The Kensington ceilings were the first in the eighteenth-century revival of this mode. In the Cupola Room at Kensington (from 1722) and on the king's grand staircase there, and in the king's gallery (1724), at Houghton, Norfolk (from 1726), Raynham Hall, Norfolk (c.1728), the Blue Velvet Room, Chiswick (c.1728), and at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (c.1730), Kent consistently used grisaille ornaments in grey green enlivened by gilt ornament, often on mosaic grounds based on antique precedent (a technique which he termed al Italiano). In this type of decoration he was far more accomplished than in conventional painting: the staircase at Houghton is a tour de force of trompe-l'oeil grisaille painting. He painted a grotesque ceiling at Rousham as late as 1738 and Bartoli-style coffered ceilings with painted insets at 22 Arlington Street in 1741, and at 44 Berkeley Square in 1743: both are in the style of Giulio Romano. When Kent first took responsibility for the design of the whole room is still unclear: it is not known, for instance, if Colen Campbell was responsible for the architectural wall frames in the Burlington House Great Room. Unfortunately, several of Kent's early commissions are not fully documented: ceilings for Canons, Middlesex, owned by James Brydges, first duke of Chandos; substantial interior work for Thomas Pelham-Holles, fourth duke of Newcastle, at Newcastle House, Lincoln's Inn Fields (1725); and Wanstead House, Essex (early 1720s?), where Kent painted ceilings and designed furniture and, if Hogarth's Assembly at Wanstead (1729) is to be trusted, a complete room. Certainly by 1724 in the hall at Ditchley House, Oxfordshire, and at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, from 1725, Kent was in full command of the architectonic decoration of walls, including chimneypieces and doors, combined with movable wall furniture. Now he was the decorator, furniture designer, and ornamentalist. Attention to interiors and what they contained led in due course to consideration of the architectural whole, and concurrently to the surrounding garden and landscape.

Drawing style

Kent attained this achievement through the normal medium of design drawings, but what was abnormal was his mode of presentation. Unfortunately the designs for Burlington House, which would have been most revealing, have disappeared in recent times. To judge by his earliest surviving design—for the Kensington drawing-room ceiling in 1722—his unconventional style was not yet apparent, nor did it appear at Ditchley in 1724 (hence early misattributions to Gibbs of Kent's design for the hall). But it was full-blown by the time he was working on Houghton in 1725 and the dining-room for Charles Fitzroy, second duke of Grafton, in 1728. The idiosyncratic characteristics of his new style were a three-dimensional painterly manner of elevation and section, the employment of a yellowy bistre wash over freehand drawing without use of ruler, and the many witticisms and personal pentimenti added. As if she was looking over his shoulder at him drawing Grafton's dining-room, Kent sketches in the head of Lady Burlington; in views of Chiswick a dog pees against his leg; while a donkey brays under the triumphal arch at Holkham. These amusing pentimenti abound. Kent composed as a painter, and although his office did produce conventional working drawings of plan and elevation for execution at the site, he rarely used the ruler, but in perspective washed his way across paper just like a topographical artist. For an architect this is unique: Burlington, Henry Flitcroft, and Isaac Ware never emulated his picturesque manner. It had several sources. One signal influence was to be found in the early 1720s in the library of William Cavendish, second duke of Devonshire, at nearby Devonshire House in Piccadilly: Claude Lorrain's precious Liber veritatis. It is inconceivable that the curious Kent did not examine the bistre-yellow-washed arcadian compositions by a painter familiar to him as a student in Italy. Another influence is the volume of Inigo Jones's masque designs acquired by Burlington about 1724, in which are to be found parallels with the drafting style of Kent's water garden projects for Chiswick in the early 1730s. If Kent's newly invented mode was unconventional for architectural design, it was revolutionary when he turned his mind to landscape.

Furniture and ornamental design

Concurrent with mural paintings, Kent soon considered the design of furniture: in this too he struck out in unfamiliar directions. The first evidence of his abilities as a furniture designer is in the Houghton saloon elevation, dated 1725: this showed furniture and pictures in position, as indeed he was to propose at Kensington. Significantly, this mode of presenting a design has precedents in England only in drawings by John Talman. The Houghton side-tables shown in the design are of a scrolled foliate sort, not unlike the Chiswick Gallery tables, which may have first been made for the Old House at Chiswick shortly before 1724. His furniture must be assessed with his drawings made in 1725 for Pope's Odyssey (1726), engraved by Peter Fourdrinier. Kent's first attempt at book illustration occurred in 1720 with the frontispiece to Mr Gay's Poems on Several Occasions, and significantly this is conventional, with none of the baroque flourishes to be found in the Veneto–Florentine–Roman style furniture and decoration of the Odyssey illustrations, and of course likewise in the 1725 Houghton design. What is exceptional in Kent's translation of this Italian style, formulated by such designers as Andrea Brustolon, Giovanni Giardini, and G. B. Foggini, into his own furniture, is his singular incorporation of classical ornament such as Vitruvian scroll, wave moulds, Greek key, enclosed guilloche, interwoven bands, key meander—essentially the vocabulary of Palladio's ornamental trim. It first appears at Kensington, and it is tempting to envisage Burlington and Kent together discovering Jonesian (that is, Palladian) ornament through their joint study of the designs by Palladio, Jones, and John Webb bought by Burlington from John Talman in 1720–21. With this austere classical ornament Kent combined into his furniture compositions, foliate, scallop shell, fish scale, and reversed scroll ornament, using large shells in particular as terminations, as in the green velvet state bed at Houghton (1732), or as focal points on chair rails or table centres.

Although Kent's furniture is strongly sculptural, it is also architectonic. In the same category as furniture must be judged the state barge designed for Frederick, prince of Wales (1732). There was clearly sympathy between prince and artist: in the prince's masquerade of 1731 he was a shepherd attended by eighteen huntsmen ‘dressed after a drawing of Kent's, in green waistcoats, leopardskins and quivers at their backs … antique gloves with pikes up to their elbow, and caps and feathers upon their heads like a Harry the 8th by Holbein’ (Lord Ilchester, ed., Lord Hervey and his Friends, 1950, 115–16). If the design of Kent's furniture is seen as grammatically wilful, and if wilful means breaking the rules, then it has affiliations with the mannerist tendencies to be observed in his architecture after 1730. Not surprisingly, the furniture designer soon turned to consider ornamental items and utensils. The key document for these is a book by Kent's acolyte John Vardy, Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent (1744). Here are illustrated fourteen designs for chandeliers, tureens, dish covers, candlesticks, cups and covers, and various items of plate that seem mostly to have been made after the mid-1730s: they include a table centre as part of a service for Frederick, prince of Wales (1745–6), Colonel Pelham's gold cup (1736), and silver chandeliers for George II at Herrenhausen.

Kent as architect

Kent's education as an architect began at Chiswick, not in Italy, although his sketchbook and what was stored in his memory provided a rich quarry. By 1719 Burlington had determined to be an architect, and by 1721 he was designing Tottenham Park, Wiltshire, for Lord Bruce, and in 1722 the Westminster dormitory. In 1723, with the design for General Wade's house in Old Burlington Street, he was delving into the designs by Palladio. By 1725, when the decision was taken to build his villa at Chiswick, Burlington had established professional drawing offices managed by Henry Flitcroft, his clerk of the works, in Burlington House and at Chiswick: this was Kent's learning ground. Crucial was Burlington's discovery of Jones's ornamental vocabulary through the study of his surviving works and his designs, the first step towards Burlington's emergence as the British Vitruvius—an achievement from which Kent cannot be excluded. The Jonesian vocabulary is evident in Kent's designs for chimneypieces through the 1720s: these were not the literal translations from Jones as favoured by Burlington, but incorporated Jonesian elements and ornament. The real catalyst that converted Kent the decorator into Kent the architect was the task given him by Burlington in 1724 to edit The Designs of Inigo Jones … with some Additional Designs (by Burlington and himself), which appeared in two volumes in 1727. The watershed between decorator and architect occurred about 1730, and it is significant that only one design for exterior architecture by Kent survives before that date. By February 1731 Isaac Ware had advertised his Designs of Inigo Jones and Others, containing garden buildings by Kent that must all have been designed about 1730: the Temple of Venus at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, a temple and obelisk at Shotover, Oxfordshire, and two garden buildings at Claremont, Surrey. By about 1730, too, Kent had designed the Queen's Hermitage in Richmond Gardens, and at Pope's Twickenham Villa garden ornaments and the Shell Temple. The first architecture of any substance is Kew House, for Frederick, prince of Wales, designed in 1730. The new refronting—incorporating open pediments—derived from the reconstruction drawings by Palladio of the Roman baths, then in Burlington's possession; these were edited by Burlington as Fabbriche antiche disegnate da Andrea Palladio (1730), for which Kent provided a title-page and tailpieces and Ware drawings for the engraver.

As this one work transformed Burlington from a Palladian into a proto-neo-classic Vitruvian architect, so too was it a powerful influence upon Kent. This is first manifested in Kent's unexecuted designs for the Painted Chamber at Westminster in 1730, boasting an antique Roman front with a tripartite window set under a Diocletian one, lighting a gallery based upon a Roman reconstruction by Palladio. The encircling ornamental Roman Trajanesque frieze has no precedent in conventional European architecture before 1760. The difficulty of disentangling Kent's work from Burlington's can be seen when this Westminster project is compared with Burlington's Vitruvian York assembly rooms, also begun in 1730. It is even more evident when Burlington, Kent, and Coke (now Lord Lovell) conspired to design Coke's Holkham Hall, Norfolk, from 1733. Holkham was a collaborative effort, demonstrated when Coke wrote to Burlington on 26 November 1736, ‘I shall wait on you with my portfeuill and make the Signor scold, for now we must think of the inside of the rooms’ (Burlington correspondence, Chatsworth). Kent was directly responsible for the exterior, the hall, and the inside of the south-west pavilion. The executant architect and clerk of the works was Matthew Brettingham, who completed the interior in a less disciplined version of Kent's decorative style long after the deaths of Kent and Burlington—and subsequently claimed the whole as his own in The Plans and Elevations of the Late Earl of Leicester's House at Holkham (1761). Holkham is a perfect fusion of Palladian and Jonesian elements: the tower house is derived from Burlington's Tottenham crossed with Jonesian Wilton House, with Palladian windows set in relieving arches, and incorporating many elements from Chiswick. Its columnar hall of imperial Roman grandeur was a worthy successor to the York assembly rooms, and served as a model in private and public works throughout the world for the next two centuries.

The Westminster commission was a result of Kent's membership of the board of works. Through Burlington's influence he had a seat on the board as master carpenter from May 1726. In 1728 he was favoured by a ‘new constituted place’ of surveyor or inspector of paintings in the royal palaces, and in 1735 became master mason and deputy surveyor of the works. His works in this capacity began in 1731 with the Royal Mews on the site of the present National Gallery and Trafalgar Square. Kent's many designs show him experimenting with mannerist devices, such as keystones breaking up into entablatures or partly rusticated string courses, reflecting his study of Giulio Romano. In the final mews design Kent turned to more conventional sources found in Jones and Campbell, combined with a novel adaptation of the wall of Palladio's nave of San Giorgio Maggiore with Diocletian windows in blank arcading to light the interior of the stalls, themselves based upon what were believed to be Jones's stables at Holland House, Kensington, published by Ware in his 1731 book. The method by which Kent breaks up the façade into separate and sometimes discordant elements has been analysed by Rudolf Wittkower. It occurred in the pavilion fronts at Holkham, in the Link Building added to Chiswick in 1733, in the model for a royal palace in Richmond Gardens (1734), and in many unexecuted designs for buildings, both large and small. But this manner of design is also to be recognized in interiors: notably the mannerist wall elevations of the proposed Westminster Painted Chamber (1730), Queen Caroline's Library in St James's Palace (1736), and in the stringing out of the pavilions of the Horse Guards designed by Kent shortly before he died in 1748. Clearly Kent was the favoured architect of the board, although it is not clear how far the Burlingtonians—Burlington, Kent, Flitcroft, Ware, and Vardy—really were conspiring to establish a national Palladian style for England. Certainly Kent's Mews of 1731 and the Treasury buildings of 1733 stood out as prominent new works on the London scene, in particular the Treasury; this showed Kent departing from the Palladian and Burlingtonian norm in the use of rustication to articulate façades as wall mass, minimizing or eliminating exterior orders.

Had Richmond Palace been built, and Kent's and Burlington's designs for a new houses of parliament, the situation would have been different. In March 1733 Burlington is reported to have a design in hand, following the rejection of designs by Hawksmoor. From then until at least 1739 numerous schemes and more than 100 drawings were produced. Except for one interior of the House of Lords, dated 1735 and idiosyncratically drawn by Kent, many are plans and elevations copied by draughtsmen in the works office. However, the presence of a large number in Kent's hand demonstrates the importance he gave this project, and also shows that he was capable of competing with those in his office as a conventional draughtsman. In effect, they comprise the York assembly rooms, Holkham, and Richmond Palace, writ large on the scale of imperial Rome. In the earlier schemes the purity of Burlington's Vitruvian architecture shines out, but when the project was revived early in 1739, Kent alone was in control, producing more conventional elevations as a worthy successor to the celebrated designs by Jones and Webb for a Whitehall Palace. Like that palace, the houses of parliament designs have entered the mythology of great lost opportunities.

In his late works of the 1740s Kent began to unshackle himself from the Burlingtonian norm. Worcester Lodge at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, completed just after Kent's death, would have received the imprimatur of Giulio Romano as a great work, even if one on a small scale. As David Watkin has percipiently observed, it maintains ‘a perfect balance between the opposing tensions of Baroque and Palladian’ (Colvin, Archs., 581). This is true too of the Banqueting House at Euston, Suffolk (1746), and if baroque implies movement, nothing could be more baroque than the staircase in 44 Berkeley Square (1742), which would not evoke surprise if found in a Turinese palace by Fillipo Juvarra. The suggestion of a connection with Juvarra is not far-fetched: that architect was in London in 1720, and made a gift of a sketchbook to Burlington in 1730. The staircase at 44 Berkeley Square is a piece of theatre, recognized as such in the words of Horace Walpole: ‘as beautiful a piece of scenery and, considering the space, of art, as can be imagined’ (H. Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting, 1798, 491). Baroque too is the extraordinary vaulted system of the saloon ceiling in 22 Arlington Street (1741). Yet late in life, concurrent with the Worcester Lodge, at Wakefield Lodge, Northamptonshire, the last work for his patron Charles Fitzroy, second duke of Grafton, Kent produced a house that might have found a place in Nicholas Ledoux's Parisian works. Frontally it is a Palladian tower house with Roman bath open pediments. However, the austerity of its elevations, the succession across the second storey of semi-blind lunettes—the huge centre one spanning the width of the single storey portico, and the ground-floor Palladian windows—blind where the outer lights should be, endow this hunting-lodge with qualities that would not look out of place in France in the 1770s.

Among Kent's board commissions the gateway to the Clock Court of Hampton Court Palace (1732) and the screen to Westminster Hall (1739) were Gothic—as too was the Gothic pulpit and choir furniture in York Minster (1741), and the choir screen in Gloucester Cathedral (1741). To these can be added the wings to the Tudor gatehouse of Henry Pelham's Esher Place, Surrey (1732), the wings and fenestration to Rousham House, Oxfordshire (1738), and the attributed Laughton Tower, Sussex, built for Pelham. This phenomenon of the 1730s allowed Kent to play pioneer in the making of an associational Gothic that earlier had occasionally been practised by Wren and Hawksmoor. In Howard Colvin's apt words, these works ‘establish him as the creator of an English rococo Gothic happily free from antiquarian preoccupations’ (Colvin, Archs., 581). Esher in particular, and Kent's Gothic works engraved by John Vardy, established a Gothic formula adopted throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. Shortly before his death Kent drew upon these Gothic experiences when preparing the illustrations for Thomas Birch's 1751 edition of Spencer's Faery queen.

Kent as gardener

When, by 1730, Kent had turned to the professional design of architecture he was also ready to consider gardens and parkscape. What he achieved was coloured by his memories of ten years in Italy, the ‘garden of the world’. During his Italian years Kent expressed no view of what he saw of gardens. His visual responses then were intuitive rather than based upon book learning, which would come later. The ten years he spent in the Burlington House circles following 1719 were crucial, certainly through his study of Claude's Liber veritatis. He may have recorded Italian villa gardens in his sketchbook, but even so, such sketches would have been partial. What he did not see personally, he would have studied in such works as G. B. Falda's Li giardini di Roma of 1683. Only later would he have read the English translation in 1707 of J. F. Felibien's Villas of Pliny to learn about ancient Roman gardens, and later still Robert Castell's Villas of the Ancients Illustrated (1729). It is far more likely that his real education began in England after 1720, observing the revolution that Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor were effecting in the making of the sublime Roman templescapes at Castle Howard with temples, belvederes, pyramids, obelisks, arches, and Roman bridges. So talked of was this garden that surely Kent or Burlington would have gone over to Lord Carlisle's from Burlington's Londesborough, barely 25 miles cross-country. Kent was also aware of the partial emancipation of the old formal gardens once constrained by their walls and avenues that had continued apace during the first twenty years of the century. His view of these old gardens is only recorded through the pen of Lord Lovell, who wrote to Burlington in 1736 about ‘those damned dull walks at Jo: Windhams those unpictoresk those cold & insipid strait walks wch make the signor sick’ and mischievously referred to Kent as ‘Signor Cazzo Vestito’ (Burlington correspondence, Chatsworth). What is amazing about Kent the gardener is the burst of activity altering gardens around 1730. He was at Pope's house at Twickenham; at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, from 1730 to 1735, creating the Elysian Fields and at least seven garden buildings; in Richmond Gardens, Surrey, erecting Queen Caroline's Hermitage—and in 1735 Merlin's Cave; at Shotover, Oxfordshire, establishing a new area of landscape garden with a temple and an obelisk; and at Claremont, Surrey, radically altering the formal Vanbrughian gardens and adding three more temples and buildings. By 1733 the renovations at Chiswick had commenced, with Kent now entirely in charge of all buildings and landscape; and the new garden for Frederick, prince of Wales, at Carlton House, Pall Mall, London, was begun with its octagonal domed temple, virtually a Chiswick in miniature. By 1735 the huge Roman layout of Holkham, Norfolk, was commenced as a miniature Castle Howard; and Esher Place, Surrey, was well in progress as perhaps the most complete and satisfying of all Kent's creations: ‘Kent is Kentissime there’ (Walpole, Corr., 9.71), as Walpole wrote to George Montague in 1748, meaning more perfect perfection. Walpole's rapturous description of Esher (to Montague) on 19 May 1763 evokes more than any other the Georgian aesthetic response to a Kentian garden: ‘The day was delightful, the scene transporting, the trees, the lawns, cascades, all is the perfection in which the ghost of Kent would joy to see them … in short it was Parnassus as Watteau would have painted it’ (ibid., 10.72). In 1738 Kent began to modify the old formal layout at Rousham, Oxfordshire, to surround the extended house in the Gothick style for his old friend General Dormer. To these must be added work in the 1740s at Badminton, Gloucestershire, Euston, Suffolk, and Horseheath Hall, Cambridgeshire. The list is certainly incomplete. It was Walpole, the first biographer of Kent, who in his essay On Modern Gardening, by writing that Kent ‘leapt the fence and saw that all Nature was a garden’ (H. Walpole, On Modern Gardening, ed. W. S. Lewis, 1931, 43–4), first mistakenly set him up as a prologue to Capability Brown. Kent would not have acknowledged this: his stretches of natural landscape were always of limited extent, tied in at their extremities by ha-has, and ornamented with garden buildings scenographically situated. A catalyst was the preparation of the four frontispieces to James Thomson's The Seasons, published in 1730: they are Claudian, but Claude with Palladian buildings. As with Kent's response to Italian gardens, he was an intuitive designer whose only grand set piece was Holkham, where no doubt Coke had many a ‘scold’ with the signor in devising this semi-formal layout. Kent did not use measuring rods and line: as Sir Thomas Robinson percipiently observed in 1734, ‘There is a new taste in gardening just arisen … after Mr Kent's notion of gardening, viz., to lay them out, and work without either level or line’ (Carlisle MSS, 143–4)—referring to Carlton Garden, Claremont, Chiswick, and Stowe. Kent's drawings bear this out and effect a revolution in the manner by which he literally paints his groves across sheets of paper and transforms them into reality.

Vertue attributed Kent's death to a dropsical inflammation ending in ‘a mortification in his bowells & feet especially inflamd’; until the last on 12 April 1748 he was ‘attended … with great care at Burlington house’. A week later he was taken to his beloved Chiswick in ‘A herse & 9 morning coaches’ and buried in the church there ‘in his noble patron's vault’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.140). In his will he stipulated exactly what all his friends were to receive in his memory, and was particularly generous to Elizabeth Butler and their two children. Kent's designs are scattered through many public and private collections. The bulk are held in London by the British Museum, the Public Record Office, the Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir John Soane's Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum; in Oxford by the Ashmolean Museum, and in the Devonshire collections at Chatsworth, Derbyshire. John Dixon Hunt's monograph publishes nearly all the garden and landscape designs.


Kent's achievement as painter, designer, architect, and gardener cannot be judged in isolation from his character. One illumines the other. His was a natural genius who broke out of the shackles of a provincial birth. The relationship of this low-born attractive man with the high-born Burlington has encouraged speculation as to the nature of that relationship. Certainly it was unusual and uncommon to have been taken into the household of the Boyles and treated as an equal, until laid to rest in their family vault at Chiswick. Even as early as 1719, barely six months after they had first met, Kent was using the familiar ‘we’ when referring to his and Burlington's artistic affairs. It was not necessarily a homosexual relationship, but was undoubtedly an attraction of opposites, the love of one man for another. As Pope's letters demonstrate, Kent was beloved by all who came into friendly contact with him.

As a painter Kent was never more than a competent decorator, not of the mettle of a Thornhill. Nevertheless, he struck out in new directions, particularly with the revival of antique-inspired Grotesk ceiling painting. This served him well for the internal embellishment of the neo-Palladian architecture promoted and practised by Burlington from 1720, and after 1730 jointly with Kent. However, only rarely was Kent wholly party to the pedantic sources used by Burlington. His architecture was a far more powerful statement expressed in a language sometimes matching the idiosyncrasies of his writing and personality. He strove for a surface articulation and movement alien to Burlington, who had not studied the mannerist architecture of Giulio Romano in Mantua. This would profoundly affect the later works of James Paine and Robert Adam.

Never did a painter's eye so influence the presentation of architectural designs. Kent was not trained to use the ruler. Instead, his are painterly picturesque compositions enlivened with whimsical pentimenti that have far more client appeal than the conventional orthographic plan, elevation, and section. He revolutionized the making of garden designs. He abandoned the gardener's rod and line and painted his proposed garden scenes for others to transpose into reality.

In all he did in gardens, although Italy was never far from his thoughts, he was also keenly aware of the templescapes of Sir John Vanbrugh and Colen Campbell. He was masterful at adapting and softening earlier layouts of the formal Bridgeman school with his groves and clumps and judiciously sited garden buildings. Some of the episodes of his planting are as natural as anything by Capability Brown. To paraphrase Walpole, Kent did see that all nature could be a garden, one in which he pioneered painterly and graduated flower planting.

Nothing could be described as more idiosyncratically Kentian than the type of furniture he was first designing for Houghton from 1726. Furniture as it had conventionally evolved from that of the late Stuart and Williamite courts reached a juncture, after which Kent created a style of furnishing appropriate for, and integrated into, the neo-Palladian interior. In this, as in everything he designed, the product could not be mistaken for that by any other designer of his time. It is truly Kentian.

John Harris


Vertue, Note books · M. Jourdain, The work of William Kent (1948) · R. Wittkower, ‘Lord Burlington and William Kent’, Palladio and English Palladianism (1974) · K. Woodbridge, ‘William Kent as landscape gardener: a re-appraisal’, Apollo, 100 (1974), 126–37 · H. M. Colvin and others, The history of the king's works, 5 (1976) · M. I. Wilson, William Kent (1984) · C. M. Sicca, ‘On William Kent's Roman sources’, Architectural History, 29 (1986), 134–57 · J. Dixon Hunt, William Kent landscape garden designs (1987) · Colvin, Archs. · S. Neave and D. Neave, ‘The early life of William Kent’, Georgian Group Journal, 6 (1996), 4–11 · Bridlington parish registers, Beverley, Humberside county archive office, PE 153/2 · G. Parry, ‘The John Talman letter-book’, Walpole Society, 59 (1997), 3–179 · J. Ingamells, ed., A dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy, 1701–1800 (1997) · D. Watkin, ed., A house in town: 22 Arlington Street (1984) · The manuscripts of the earl of Carlisle, HMC, 42 (1897) · Burlington correspondence, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire


Bodl. Oxf., Italian notebook, MS Rawl. D.1162 · Lincs. Arch., letters |  Bodl. Oxf., sale catalogue, MS Mus. Bibl. III 4 to 17, 8°20 · Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, corresp. with third earl of Burlington and countess of Burlington


B. Luti, oils, 1718, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire · W. Aikman, oils, c.1723–1725, NPG [see illus.] · B. Dandridge, oils, c.1730, NPG · G. Hamilton, group portrait, oils, 1735 (A conversation of virtuosis … at the Kings Armes), NPG · A. Bannerman, line engraving (after W. Aikman), BM, NPG; repro. in Walpole, Anecdotes (1762) · S. F. Ravenet, line engraving (after W. Aikman), BM · two drawings, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire