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.
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.