Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kent, William (1684-1748)

KENT, WILLIAM (1684–1748), painter, sculptor, architect, and landscape gardener, was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1684, and was apprenticed to a coach-painter in his fourteenth year. Five years afterwards he left his employer without leave and came to London. There he made some attempts at portrait and historical painting, which, says Walpole, induced some ‘gentlemen of his country’ (county?) to send him to Rome. He went to Rome in company with John Talman [q. v.], the first director of the Society of Antiquaries, studied under the Cavalier Luti, and gained a second prize in the second class at the academy. At Rome also he met with other patrons. Sir William Wentworth allowed him 40l. a year for seven years, and in 1716 he attracted the notice of the Earl of Burlington [see Boyle, Richard, third Earl of Burlington], who brought him to England with him, and gave him apartments in his town house for the remainder of his life. Through the influence of the earl he soon obtained extensive employment in portrait-painting, and covered the walls and ceilings in the houses of the aristocracy with historical and allegorical subjects. Among the works mentioned by Horace Walpole are ‘full-lengths’ (for the Right Hon. Henry Pelham [q. v.]) at Esher, Surrey; frescoes in the hall at Wanstead House (now destroyed), Essex; ceilings and staircases for Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton, Norfolk; and a staircase at Rainham, Norfolk, for Lord Townshend. But his talents did not lie in this direction. Hogarth's verdict, that neither England nor Italy ever produced a more contemptible dauber than Kent, has not been reversed since. William Mason, in the ‘English Garden,’ praises Kent's landscape gardening at the expense of his painting; and even Horace Walpole, who regarded him as a genius in other branches of art, tells us that Kent's portraits ‘bore little resemblance to the persons who sat for them, and the colouring was worse,’ and that ‘in his ceilings Kent's drawing was as defective as the colouring of his portraits, and as void of every merit.’ He adds that Sir Robert Walpole would not permit him to work in colours at Houghton, but restrained him to chiaroscuro. His portrait-painting was also the theme of a witty epigram by Lord Chesterfield:—

As to Apelles, Ammon's son
Would only deign to sit;
So, to thy pencil, Kent! alone
Will Brunswick's form submit!

Equal your envied wonders! save
This difference we see,
One would no other painter have—
No other would have thee.

Hogarth did not spare him or his patron. In two plates, ‘Masquerades and Operas, Burlington Gate’ (1724), and ‘The Man of Taste’ (1732)—the Man of Taste was Burlington, not Kent—he introduced the statue of Kent surmounting the gate of Burlington House, and supported on a lower level by those of Raphael and Michael Angelo; and in his ‘Burlesque on Kent's Altar-piece at St. Clement's’ (St. Clement Danes in the Strand, 1725) he caricatured without mercy the feeble composition and bad draughtsmanship, which had already led Bishop Gibson to order its removal from the church. But Kent was able by his influence at court to retaliate upon Hogarth by preventing him from executing a portrait group of the royal family and other works (see ‘Notes by George Vertue’ in the Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 23076, p. 66).

Nevertheless Kent easily made his way in high society by his winning manners and the authority with which he spoke on questions of art, and he soon became the fashionable oracle in all matters of taste. His skill in design was so prized that, according to Horace Walpole, ‘he was not only consulted for furniture, as frames of pictures, glasses, tables, chairs, &c., but for plate, for a barge, for a cradle. And so impetuous was fashion that two great ladies prevailed on him to make designs for their birthday gowns. The one he dressed in a petticoat decorated with columns of the five orders; the other like a bronze, in a copper-coloured satin with ornaments of gold.’

When he first seriously turned his attention to architecture is not clearly ascertained, but he probably began at an early date to assist the Earl of Burlington in his architectural designs; and in 1727, with the assistance of his lordship, he published two folio volumes of the ‘Designs of Inigo Jones,’ with a few by the earl and himself, and one by Palladio, the master and guide of them all. Kent's designs in this volume were mostly of chimneypieces and doors, but included one for a royal art gallery, in which panels for paintings alternated with niches for sculpture. Many of the nobility and some of the royal family were among the subscribers to this handsome work.

Kent went a second time to Rome, before 1719, and in 1730 he paid a third visit there to study architecture and buy pictures for Lord Burlington. It was perhaps on this occasion that he acquired the collection of engravings formed by his old master Luti, who had died in 1724. After his return he added largely to his reputation as an architect and a landscape gardener. He altered and decorated Kensington Palace, of which the staircase was thought by Horace Walpole to be ‘the least defective work of his pencil.’ He built the Horse Guards and the block of treasury buildings (the central portion of a design never fully executed) which overlook the parade at Whitehall. Devonshire House in Piccadilly, the Earl of Yarborough's in Arlington Street, and Holkham, Norfolk, the seat of the Earl of Leicester, are also examples of his skill in the Palladian style, and do more than any other of his existing works to justify the high patronage which he enjoyed.

Despite his poor ability he was selected to execute the statue of Shakespeare for Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, and was appointed principal painter to the crown after the death of Charles Jervas [q. v.] in 1739. Besides this office he held those of master-carpenter, architect, and keeper of the pictures, all of which, together with a pension of 100l. a year for his works at Kensington Palace, brought him an income of 600l. ‘Kent's style,’ says Walpole, ‘predominated authoritatively during his life.’ He was still engaged on his most important and favourite work (Holkham) when he died at Burlington House of an attack of inflammation in the bowels on 12 April 1748. He was buried ‘in a very handsome manner’ in Lord Burlington's vault at Chiswick. ‘His fortune,’ says Walpole, ‘which with pictures and books amounted to about 10,000l., he divided between his relations and an actress, with whom he had long lived in particular friendship.’

It is only as an architect that Kent's artistic reputation now survives. If, as has been asserted, he had any hand in designing the beautiful colonnade of Burlington House (now lying neglected on the embankment at Battersea), this reputation might stand higher, but there appears to be no sufficient reason for depriving the Earl of Burlington of the full merit of this work. On the other hand, there seems to be no doubt that he was the real designer of Holkham, although the plans were published after Kent's death by his pupil and assistant, Matthew Brettingham, without any mention of Kent [see Brettingham, Matthew, the elder, and Brettingham, Robert Furze}}]. He was a faithful follower of the Palladian style, the principles of which he understood, and his buildings, especially the Horse Guards, have the merit of fine proportion. As a decorator and designer of furniture he was heavy, but not without style.

Other works of Kent which are praised by Walpole are a staircase at Lady Isabella Finch's in Berkeley Square, the ‘Temple of Venus’ at Stowe, and the great room at the Right Hon. Henry Pelham's in Arlington Street. For this statesman he also built a Gothic house at Esher; and other works in the same style were the law courts at Westminster and a choir screen in Gloucester Cathedral; but all these have been demolished. His most important ‘gardens’ were those of Sir Charles Cotterel Dormer and of Carlton House, but they no longer exist. Walpole calls him the ‘father of modern gardening,’ ‘the inventor of an art that realizes painting and improves nature. Mahomet imagined an Elysium, but Kent created many.’ His claim to be the inventor of that more natural style of gardening and planting which was afterwards developed so greatly by ‘Capability’ Brown [see Brown, Lancelot] and others seems to be well founded, although Bridgman, who invented the ‘haha,’ was to some extent his predecessor. The principles Kent followed were those laid down by Pope in his ‘Epistle to the Earl of Burlington,’ and had been illustrated by Pope himself in his famous garden at Twickenham. Mason, in his ‘English Garden,’ speaks of Kent as Pope's ‘bold associate.’ In connection with John Wootton [q. v.] Kent designed some illustrations to Gay's ‘Fables,’ and he executed the vignettes to the large edition of Pope's ‘Works,’ and plates to Spenser's ‘Fairy Queen,’ 1751. All of these are poor, and the last are execrable.

Kent designed the decorations of the chapel-royal at the marriage in 1734 of Princess Anne and the Prince of Orange, and published an engraving of the scene. He also published a print of Wolsey's hall at Hampton Court.

Two pictures by Kent are still exhibited at Hampton Court Palace, ‘The Interview of Henry V and the Princess Katharine’ (784), and the marriage of the same persons (788); and a model by Kent for a palace in Hyde Park is also to be seen there. A portrait of Kent by himself was lent by the Rev. W. V. Harcourt to the Loan Exhibition of Portraits at South Kensington in 1867.

[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting; Redgrave's Dict.; Bryan's Dict. (Graves and Armstrong); Redgraves' Century of Painters; Cunningham's Lives of British Artists, 1831; The English Garden, by W. Mason, Commentary, &c., by W. Burgh, 1783; Fergusson's History of Architecture; Gwilt's Encyclopædia of Architecture; Sarsfield Taylor's Fine Arts in Great Britain and Ireland; Cat. of Loan Exhibition of Portraits at South Kensington, 1867; Biographie Universelle, article ‘Luti, Benoit;’ Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, v. 329, vi. 159; Chalmers's Dict.; Gould's Sketches of Artists; Pye's Patronage of British Art; Seguier's Dict.; Nagler's Künstler-Lexikon; Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. (1891), App. pt. ix. p. 191; Dobson's Hogarth (1891).]

C. M.