William Kent: designing Georgian Britain Edited by Susan Weber YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 656pp, £60 • Tablet bookshop price £54 Tel 01420 592974 by some as the equal of Inigo Jones, Vanbrugh or Capability Brown,
William Kent (16854748) was an accomplished and influential designer whose landscape gardens, furniture, architecture, paintings, sculpture and book illustrations helped form eighteenth-century taste in England, Ireland, America and beyond. This collection of scholarly essays on his various talents is lavishly illustrated, beautifully produced and a lasting pleasure to read.
Born of humble parents in Yorkshire, Kent lived, studied and worked in Italy for 10 years, including a period painting devotional pictures in churches, and the influence of Italian neoclassicism, is clear in his own style, an English Palladianism which verges sometimes on pastiche. He also worked in Baroque, Rococo and Gothic styles. Much of his oeuvre still exists the interiors at Houghton Hall, Norfolk; his garden buildings, statues and landscaping at Stowe and Badminton; the Cupola Room and staircase at Kensington Palace; as well as the Treasury Building, Horse Guards and 10 Downing Street. Known in England as "il signior Kent", so I talianate was his style, he was highly thought of by contemporary authors Alexander Pope and Horace Walpole, who described
his best work as "Kentissimo". Ruskin, the Pugins, and Sir Kenneth Clark among others have criticised the whole Anglo-Palladian project as over-decorative, imitative, derivative and often little better than provincial pastiche of a decadent, anti-Christian, neo-pagan style. This sumptuous volume would have gained weight and seriousness by at least one critical essay challenging Kent's neo-colonial obeisances to a formalism, which at its worst is close to kitsch. The nineteenth-century Gothic revival, which so influenced Catholic and Anglican church building in Britain, was a direct reaction against Kent and all his ideas.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lucky are those who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy it what a fine present it would make. Robert Carver