William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain: the Gardens

by Abigail Willis

The inventor of the English Landscape Garden, William Kent, still influences designers today. Tom Stuart-Smith, for example, describes Kent’s garden at Rousham as his ideal-‘magical, hauntingly beautiful and deeply intellectual’. The V&A’s William Kent, Designing Georgian Britain exhibition, which  opened last week, is a timely reminder of his many talents and marks the latest in a round of cultural events celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian accession.

The show follows the V&A’s record-breaking David Bowie exhibition, but if anyone can square up to the Thin White Duke, it’s William ‘the Signor’ Kent. The jovial, roly-polymath of the early Georgian era, Kent’s inventive talents embraced painting, architecture, interior decoration, furniture design, silverware, high-performance royal barges, as well as the co-invention of the English Landscape Garden movement. 

The exhibition – eight years in the making – presents Kent as the taste-defining Conran of his day.  Exhibits range from architectural plans for austere official buildings such as the Treasury and Horse Guards, to a vast wooden model for a summer palace (unrealized) at Richmond, and some chunkily ornate gilded furnishings that Kent designed for country houses such as Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall.

Garden lovers have to wait until the final room, “Elysium”, to discover Kent’s work as a pioneering landscape designer. With gardens being evanescent creations and impossible to transport into exhibition rooms, the curators rely on Kent’s own drawings to reveal his approach.  Influenced by Claude and Poussin’s Arcadian landscapes, Kent’s informal capriccio sketches, depicting fanciful vistas, show his preference for ‘poetic evocations’ of landscape, over the nitty-gritty technical detail of planning and installation. As Walpole summed it up so well, Kent ‘leapt the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden’

In London, Kent worked on several sites, often being called in to ‘loosen up’ the work of predecessors such as Bridgeman and Vanbrugh.  At Claremont, in Surrey, where the Duke of Newcastle commissioned him to soften the existing formal landscape, Kent’s naturalizing impulse left no trace of the original geometric design, as John Roque’s 1738 map of the estate shows. While the famous grass amphitheatre was Bridgeman’s creation, it was Kent who ‘serpentined’ the lake it overlooked, and who issued instructions for a tree-planting scheme to produce pleasing effects of colour and shade. The garden – now under the stewardship of the National Trust – is open to the public (see below).

claremont px

Claremont Lake and Ampitheatre. Credit: ricoeurian

Garden buildings were a Kentian speciality and the show includes designs for those he created for Queen Caroline at Richmond Gardens (now Kew). Whimsical as they seem, like Kent’s Temple of the Worthies at Stowe – another of his gardens, these little buildings ( now gone) gave his designs a political edge – Merlin’s Cave being intended to link the newly-installed German royal family with its Arthurian, and therefore British, ancestry. 


Stowe Elysian Fields with Temple of the Worthies:nickbristow and Temple of Ancient Virtue: sunchild57photographer

Kent’s drawings of the garden buildings at Alexander Pope’s villa in Twickenham are more informal.  A keen gardener himself, Pope was influential on Kent’s approach to landscape and the two were friends.  Their easy relationship comes through in Kent’s drawings, one of which shows the two men admiring the Shell Temple, the other depicting Pope cogitating in his ‘grotto’.  This self-same grotto still survives – along with some of the geological specimens that Pope collected for its decoration – and is open to the public on rare occasions.  In 2014 it can be visited as part of the Twickenham Festival, on Saturday 7th and 14th June (www.popesgrotto.org.uk).

For Londoners, the garden that Kent created for Lord Burlington at Chiswick House is probably his best-known landscape.  The two men met in Italy and Burlington became a valuable patron, opening the door to high-profile commissions.  At Chiswick, Kent installed eyecatchers, ‘wildernesses’ and patte d’oies (trios of radiating avenues) that can be enjoyed today in the restored gardens.  Classical references abound with Kent furnishing Burlington’s Palladian party pad with an Ionic Temple, a Doric column, and the Exedra – a formal semi-circular yew hedge whose niches were filled with genuine antique sculptures of Caesar, Pompey and Cicero.  Hydraulics not being one of Kent’s strengths, the Cascade never worked in Lord Burlington’s lifetime but today, thanks to restoration, is now fully functional.  (Kent’s cavalier approach to water is perhaps hinted at in his ambitious design for a cascade at Chatsworth, which features an implausible quantity of waterfalls tumbling down a hair-raisingly sheer pine-clad slope).

……………Chiswick House Cascade and Ionic Temple: Credit: orangeaurochs

Kent’s light-hearted drawings of Chiswick reveal his affection for the place where he spent so many years working and living – a trio of small dogs scamper in front of the Roman big wigs in the Exedra, while a moonlit scene of the Burlington Lane Gate includes a snoozing Kent propped up against an obelisk accompanied by a posse of dancing bunnies.  Kent’s close association with the Burlington family lasted until his death and even beyond, since he was buried in the Burlington family vault at Chiswick Church.

Kent’s most complete surviving garden is at Rousham in Oxfordshire which even in the 18th-century was acknowledged as the quintessential Kentian creation (or “Kentissimo” as Horace Walpole had it).   It is here represented by the sole garden artefact in the exhibition, a sturdy carved wooden bench designed by Kent to sit in the Praeneste, a stone loggia inspired by the Temple of Fortuna at Palestrina.

Rousham: Lower and Upper Cascades and Arcade: credit: saffron_uk

Projected on the wall behind the bench, footage shows Kent’s gardens as they are today.  Filmed in their summer pomp, they look irresistible – and, charming as Kent’s garden drawings are, visitors would do well to take the hint and get out and experience Kent’s gardens as he originally intended, on the ground and in three dimensions, their serpentine paths revealing their designer’s choreographed vistas all in good time.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain

V&A, 22 March to 13 July 2014


* Two garden-themed workshops are part of the exhibition’s programme of related events: an interactive garden design masterclass led by award-winning designer Juliet Sargeant (Friday 16 May) and Leaping the Fence, a study day with focus on contemporary responses to Kent’s houses and gardens. 

Kent 2 pxClaremont Landscape Garden


Stowe Landscape Gardens


Chiswick House and Gardens


Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust


Rousham House & Garden






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