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William Kent’s trail of gold

The V&A museum in London takes readers on a Georgian gilt trip

Lucy Farmer | March 27th 2014

Antique British furniture often seems as if it’s all brown and brooding—dark Chippendale mahogany and Regency rosewood come to mind. But visitors to the new William Kent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are in for a dazzling surprise. Kent was the architect and designer who waved a golden wand over the Georgian period, leaving a trail of garish gilt.

Kent began modestly as a coach painter, studied art in Rome and hobnobbed around Italy with young noblemen on the Grand Tour. After ten years he returned to Britain with ambitions to bring Italian design to the nation. The exhibition, “William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain”, which weaves through rooms crammed with his sketches, paintings and furnishings, as if wandering through a Kentian house, traces his 40-year career as the tastemaker of a new society.

Thanks to rich patrons such as Lord Burlington and Thomas Coke, Kent introduced Palladian architecture to Britain. The rustification and Venetian windows of Horse Guards at Whitehall and Holkham Hall in Norfolk are grand examples of this style. He was also the father of the English landscape garden. The man-made undulating hills, tranquil lakes, and outdoor statues drew on classical ideas of Elysium and, of course, recollections from Italy. He saw the country garden as an old master painting. In the exhibition, visitors can sit on a garden bench listening to birds singing and watch a video of his most-celebrated gardens, such as Rousham in Oxfordshire.

The exhibition, which is part of this year’s 300th anniversary celebrations of the Hanoverian accession, is exhaustive about his influences, ambitions and accomplishments—he was a polymath if ever there was one. But, like a magpie, I was most drawn to his elaborate golden furnishings.

Before Kent, British furniture had tended to be rectilinear with shallow carvings, but Kent’s pieces are exquisitely detailed, sculpted into 3D images of sphinx-like mermaids, masks of Venus, leaves, fruit and flowers. Every spare inch was covered in a fish-scale pattern or a scallop motif. And then came the glitz—chairs, settees, console tables, picture frames, mirrors, all covered in gilt. These outlandish furnishings were given interiors to match. George I even had him revamp his apartments at Kensington Palace. Kent’s sumptuous, unified designs were perfect for the Georgian kings and aristocrats who wanted to shun English understatement and embrace a new nation and a new order—the more bling the better.

At the press launch, lead curator Julius Bryant said the V&A is “not just doing history but wants to inspire design”. Fashion comes in cycles, so perhaps fledgling designers will visit the exhibition, return to their sketchpads, minds saturated with gilt, and usher in a shining new Kentian age.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain is at the V&A in London until July 13th 2014

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