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Review> Blurred Lines
Paul Gunther explores the exhibition, William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, at New York's Bard Graduate Center.
Kent's preliminary design for Queen Caroline's Library, 1736.
Courtesy Sir John Soane's Museum

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain
Bard Graduate Center
18 West 86th Street
New York
Through February 9, 2014

The obscurely applied title of summer 2013’s pop music earworm “Blurred Lines” jumps to mind in labeling the theme and content of the important new exhibition and tour de force catalog heralding fall at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan. As the first comprehensive retrospective of the full multidisciplinary range of William Kent’s career since his death 265 years ago, the professional divisions of modern practice across disciplines are laid bare and celebrated through the mind and hand of an under-known and until recently overlooked genius. The patient lens of history here finds its worthy convergence—regardless of stylistic preference—and illuminates the ambition of all those seeking to break free from formal boundaries and exercise their solutions accordingly in our digital world.

William Henry Hunt, The Gallery, Cheswick House, 1828 (left). Model for the effigy of Isaac Newton, Westminster Abbey, London, 1727–1730 (right).
Courtesy Chattsworth Settlement; Victoria and Albert Museum

The show and its nearly 700-page catalog is a passage through the blurred lines of a sensual rubbery Anglo-Palladian baroque plasticity distilled from Italy, where young Kent traveled thanks to the perspicacity of neighboring Yorkshire tradesmen. It was there too that he met Lord Burlington, his lifelong patron and partner in design expression. Together they defined a new Great Britain just as an imported Hanoverian king of German descent called for it. Designing for Georgian Britain has eponymic resonance that reminds a 21st century visitor of the lost ties between political ambition and an attendant architectural identity. Imagine, for example, an exhibition two centuries hence asserting some era-specific design vocabulary in the age of Obama; there will be nothing to say as the broad social forces of the modern era deny a unified investment in matters of public taste.

Architecture and its allied arts of landscape design, surface ornamentation, lighting, decorative painting, sculpture, and site-specific furnishings emerge here in a kind of career-long gesamtkunstwerk. Kent as polite, culture-melding iconoclast, whose personal ambition led from humble beginning to aristocratic go-to guy, verifies the creative impulses of co-curators Susan Weber (founding steward of Bard Graduate Center) and Julius Bryant (from the generously lending Victoria and Albert) to secure Kent’s place as one of the first practitioners who can properly bear the title of decorator. Full stop. No apologies necessary.

Left to right: Kent-designed chandelier, 1736-1737; Two-handled cup and cover, 1736; Pair of pedestals with cherub heads, for the Garden Room, Chiswick House, 1735.
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Victoria and Albert Museum; Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

The beauty and rigorous interpretation through the labels, discretely installed videos, and especially this definitive catalog of the primary materials blend to prove the thesis. This is an enterprise of tender regard distilled by unprecedented research on an artist who left behind remarkably few personal records and whose surviving output is disparate and in many case still held privately. Apart from paintings by Kent and by his contemporaries—including skeptical detractors like the caustically envious William Hogarth, and Kent’s drawings (with their charming yet always thematically related doodles) of sections, elevations, and compositional renderings—almost none of the included material has been seen by the public. Two hundred years of ignorant if gradually shrinking disregard is here finally and fully dispelled. An innovative design mind is on glorious display. The hard work of assembling the narrative is evident throughout, representing, according to Weber, 20 years of condign intent.

The section devoted to Kent’s Houghton Hall (1725–35) for Britain’s first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, like that of nearby Raynham Hall (1724–35) for the less affluent if no less socially ambitious Townshend family, are ideal metaphors of the project’s line-blurring curatorial and editorial force. Limited only by the Brad Center’s modest if visitor friendly galleries, each project shows the rich complementary diversity of the taste-molding work Kent brought to bear. See it to believe it. Put simply, William Kent defined an age heretofore hidden in plain sight.

Paul Gunther

Paul Gunther is a New York-based writer.