William Kent at Chiswick House & Gardens

Above- William Kent’s ceiling paintings in the ‘Grotesque’ style in Lady Burlington’s Summer Parlour. It has been argued that the identification of the bust is Maria Clementina Sobieska, the Polish Princess and wife to James Francis Edward Stuart (The ‘Old’ Pretender).     

William Kent was the most versatile and sought after talent in early eighteenth-century England.

Born in the small Yorkshire town of Bridlington at the end of 1685 and Christened ‘William Cant’, by 1709 ‘Cant’ had changed his surname to ‘Kent‘ and was recorded as living in London with the profession of 'Limner' (an artist who works with watercolours). In the same year William Kent travelled to the continent in the company of the Catholic and Jacobite art collector John Talman (son of the Baroque architect William Talman), a connoisseur who would later sell the 3rd Earl of Burlington his collection of drawings by Andrea Palladio and the Stuart Master Surveyor Inigo Jones; together with an architect called Daniel Lock.

After touring France, Kent and his party meandered slowly to Italy before settling in Rome where Kent was the spend the next ten years immersing himself in Italian culture and history (during this time Kent studied painting under the Master painter Giuseppe Chiari and won a Papal prize for painting a religious ceiling in the church of ‘San Giuliano dei Fiamminghi’, Rome). In 1719 Kent had the good fortune to reacquaint him

elf with Richard Boyle, the future architect of Chiswick House, who was on his second Grand Tour studying the architecture of Andrea Palladio and ancient Rome. Together they returned to London and Kent immediately started to execute a number of mythological ceiling paintings for the Earl and his mother at Burlington House in Piccadilly.

A painter by trade, Lord Burlington recognised Kent’s limitations as a artist and promoted him into new areas in which he excelled including interior decoration (including silverware), garden design, book illustration, designs for tombs, sepulchres and sculpture, together with architecture (he also designed children’s dresses, cradles and even a Royal barge!). By the 1720’s Kent had come to the attention of King George II his wife Queen Caroline, and carried out Royal commissions at Richmond Gardens, Kensington Palace, Carlton Gardens (for Frederick Prince of Wales) and Hampton Court.

William Kent began working at Chiswick House from its construction in 1727. In the villa Kent painted four of the main room ceilings including the stunning allegorical paintings in the Red and Blue Velvet Rooms. Kent was also responsible for designing much of the furniture that once adorned its rooms, some of which remains in situ within the villa today. The returned Chiswick tables in the Gallery are believed to be to Kent’s design and remain the earliest pair of Palladian tables in Britain. Kent was also responsible for many of the symbols within the decoration of the villa, including the use of distinctive shell or scallop motifs which are present in a number of the painting frames and furniture.

William Kent was also responsible for the gardens at Chiswick which were laid out in the new ‘informal’ or ‘irregular’ style, a marked contrast to the previous formality of rigid, geometric gardens with their typical use of topiary and formal avenues. Following Chiswick, William Kent went on to develop the new landscape garden at renowned gardens such as Stowe, Charlton Gardens, Esher, Holkham and his masterpiece at Rousham.

The William Kent Tour of Chiswick House and Gardens Tour is priced at £15.00 per ticket and includes entrance fee to the villa. After the tour of the villa the group will then relocate to the gardens and examine Kent’s profound influence in the surrounding landscape.

Tours last ninety minutes.

Left- One of a pair of console tables designed by William Kent for the Gallery formally at Chiswick House

(Photo from the archives of Victoria and Albert Museum).

Above- ‘Mercury Presiding over the Art’ by William Kent c.1730.

A self-portrait of Kent can be seen in the roundel in the bottom left hand corner of the painting (the figure in a blue shawl). This painting also has strong Masonic and Hermetic overtones which would have been understood by an eighteenth-century Freemason.