The most successful and distinguished architect of Lord Burlington’s Palladian group was William Kent, the son of a working class Yorkshireman. Several of Kent’s buildings in London still survive, certainly enough to demonstrate his very personal approach to Palladianism architecture.
Characteristics of this approach are his strong feeling for advancing and retreating solid volumes, low pyramid roofs and the rather surprising Baroque touches which appear in his buildings and, most strongly, in his splendid furniture.
Kent was born at Bridlington in Yorkshire and was apprenticed to a coach-painter in Hull in about 1700. His talent was discovered by a group of aristocratic patrons of the arts, who paid for him to go and study painting in Italy. In exchange, he was to send back paintings and sculpture for his patrons.
The young Kent set off for Italy in 1709 or 1710 and studied in Rome in the studio of the painter Benedetto Luti. There, he met many wealthy English travellers doing the Grand Tour and established personal contacts which would last.
For a while, he helped these visitors with their purchases of works of art. He made them laugh too: Kent was plump and very short, with an impish sense of humour which recognised no social superiors. And by 1713 he had established a fair reputation as a painter in Rome rather curiously, it seems today, when one considers the poor quality of his surviving paintings. His great talents for architecture, furniture and landscape design were not discovered until a decade later.
Kent probably met Lord Burlington in Rome in 1714 and the two very different Yorkshiremen took to each other at this first brief contact. After travels around Italy with other noblemen, the young painter wrote in 1717 that he wanted to come back to England, but was worried about the popularity in London of “ye French gusto in painting”. In 1719 Kent went to meet Lord Burlington in Genoa during the latter’s tour to see Palladio’s buildings at Vicenza. Burlington brought Kent back to London that Christmas.
On 30th January 1720 Kent wrote to one of his original patrons, Burrell Massingberd, about “ye days being so short and cold to an Italian constitution yt I keep my little room, only twice a week yt I go to ye Operas”. Burlington installed the “Signior” in an apartment in Burlington House, and Kent was to live there, in effect as jester to the court of resident artists, until his death.
Lord Burlington immediately started to promote his protege’s interests to the King and to the court, gaining him several commissions for paintings. In 1724, Kent edited a book of Inigo Jones’s designs, and in the following year, he designed the interiors for Burlington’s own villa at Chiswick (Chiswick House) and the picturesque ruined temple at Claremont in Surrey.
It seems that Kent may have returned to Italy in 1730 to study architecture at last and his career in building design dates from that time, coinciding with Burlington’s withdrawal from fashionable court life.
Kent’s White House at Kew Palace of 1731-35 has been demolished, as has his large Royal Mews building of 1732, which stood on the site of the present National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. His Gothic entrance of 1732 in the Clock Court of Hampton. Court Palace, with the Cumberland Suite, survives, and his painted Royal Barge of the same year is in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. At this time he also did the monument to Lord Stanhope in Westminster Abbey, restored the Rubens ceiling in the Banqueting House and designed fancy dress costumes which could turn a fashionable lady into a “walking Palladio in petticoats”.
During the 1730s Kent’s practice grew enormously and included some major country houses. In 1733-36 his design for the Treasury building was started. The design consisted of a long three-storey block with pavilions at each end. Unfortunately, only the centre of the block was built, omitting three bays at each end as well as the pavilions, and this stands on the south side of the Horse Guards Parade off Whitehall.
The building, with its projecting pedimented central section and sophisticated rustication overall, is of great Palladian elegance. But, standing alone without its wings, the height of the elevation makes the proportions appear strange. The interior has been largely rebuilt as flats for present-day government ministers.
In the same years during which the old Treasury was designed and started, Kent was building Devonshire House in Piccadilly for the third Duke of Devonshire. It was a simple and strong brick mansion with splendid Kent interiors. In 1924 it was demolished and replaced by the office block of the same name.
It was in 1738 that Kent started his revolutionary landscaping of the park at Rousham Hall in Oxfordshire, and at the same time, he was working on designs (1732-39) for re-building Westminster Palace, which were never executed. In 1740-42 he designed the famous monument to Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey (the statue was carved by Scheemakers) and rooms at No. l0 Downing Street. The much-altered house at No. 22 Arlington Street, beside the Ritz Hotel, dates from the same years. It was built in 1741-50 and is now being restored to its original state.
William Kent was established as the leading architect in the capital. He was not a cheap artist to employ. According to the Palladian amateur Sir Thomas Rob Signior often gave his orders when he was full of Caret, and as he did not perhaps see the works for several months he would order without consulting his employers, three,or four hundred pounds worth of work to be directly pulled down.” He lived extravagantly, keeping a mistress named Elizabeth Butler in Covent Garden, for whom he later provided in his will, but becoming very fat from “high feeding and life” at Burlington House.
During the 1740s, Kent was at work on designing two major public buildings for London which were not built until after his death. The first, the Courts of Justice beside the Houses of Parliament, stood where the public entrance to the House of Commons is today.
The range, erected under the supervision of John Vardy in 1758-70, was a typical Kent design with a pedimented central section facing the east end of Westminster Abbey, wings and corner pavilions with Kent’s favourite pyramid roofs. The building was damaged by the 1834 fire at Parliament and was finally demolished in 1850.
In early 1748 Kent made a visit to Paris. In April of that year he got an “inflammation of his bowels and foot” which spread through his body quickly. He died on 12 April, and Lord Burlington had his Signior buried in the Boyle family vault at Chiswick.