‘Designing Georgian Britain’ Explores William Kent’s Oeuvre

William Aikman, “William Kent,” circa 1723–25; oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London.

NEW YORK CITY — “William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain,” on view at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, through February 9, is the first major exhibition to examine the life and career of one of the most influential designers in Eighteenth Century Britain.

Visitors will discover Kent’s genius, through numerous examples of his elaborate drawings for architecture, gardens and sculpture, along with furniture, silver, paintings, illustrated books and through new documentary films. As most of his best-known surviving works are in Britain’s great country houses, the exhibition is rich in loans from private as well as public collections. Organized by the Bard Graduate Center in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the exhibition is curated by Susan Weber (BGC) and Julius Bryant (V&A). It will travel to the V&A where it will be on view March 22–July 13.

The exhibition explores Kent’s work over three decades (1719–48) — a period when Britain was defining itself as a new nation and overtaking France as a leading world power. Like Robert Adam a generation later, Kent is identified not only with his own prolific and diverse output but also with an entire period style. At a time when most patrons and collectors looked to Italy for their art and design, Kent’s versatility and artistic inventiveness set the style of his age and asserted the status of the modern British artist.

“Designing Georgian Britain” is divided into ten sections that introduce specific aspects of Kent’s work, including signature private and royal commissions, and years on the Grand Tour in Italy where he was sent to hone his painting skills by copying the Old Masters, and to act as a purchasing agent for British collectors. Italian Baroque art, interiors and furnishings made a lasting impression on Kent.

Featured are seldom seen paintings and drawings, including Kent’s copies after Agostino Carracci, Domenichino and Carlo Maratti, and drawings of Italianate interiors by fellow Grand Tourist John Talman, that document this period in Kent’s life. While in Italy, Kent met Lord Burlington who became his mentor and collaborator for the rest of his life.

William Kent’s life and the historical age in which he worked is the subject of the first section. A highlight is William Aikman’s portrait of Kent that hung over the mantelpiece at Wanstead House, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The second section focuses on Kent’s formative early commission for the grand estate of Sir Robert Walpole, and one of the key buildings in the history of Palladian architecture in England. In addition to drawings and plans of these interiors, the exhibition features rare examples of Kent’s furniture designed specifically for these commissions.

In 1722, Kent was given a major commission to decorate the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace, where he was in charge of painting the ceiling and designing the furniture and chimneypieces. One of Kent’s best known and somewhat unusual works was a state barge designed for Frederick. Although the barge is too large to travel, the exhibition will feature Kent’s designs along with a detailed model. Other notable royal commissions explored include those for Queen Caroline’s Library in St James’s Park and Hermitage in Richmond Garden.

Also on view will be several choice pieces of silver, made after designs by Kent, including a chandelier commissioned by George II for the Leineschloss, Hanover, made by Balthasar Behrens, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a large centerpiece (or epergne) for Frederick made by silversmith George Wickes.

Although known today almost exclusively for his Palladian style, Kent worked in other idioms depending on the wishes of the patron. The exhibition looks at his Gothic works, including projects at Hampton Court and Esher Place, and his illustrations for books, most notably an edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

The Bard Graduate Center Gallery is at 18 West 86th Street. For more information, www.bgc.bard.edu or 212-501-3011.

Photo: Bruce M White
William Kent, console table, for the Green Drawing Room, Houghton Hall, circa 1731; carved giltwood, veneered blue and yellow lapis lazuli top. Houghton Hall, Norfolk. —Bruce White photo

Michael Rysbrack; model for the effigy of Isaac Newton, Westminster Abbey, London, 1727–30. terracotta; given by Dr W.L. Hildburgh FSA; ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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