William Kent

Royal artist, architect and designer to Georgian kings

Royal artist, architect and designer to Georgian kings

William Kent (1685-1748) rose from humble origins as sign painter. Commissioned by Georges I and II he became one of the most successful and fashionable designers of the period.

He was the first British designer to tackle the interior as a whole; extending an architect’s control to every detail of interior decoration, fireplaces and furnishings.

Georgian designer

Yorkshire-born William Kent began his working life as a sign and coach painter. His employer recognised his greater talent, and Kent was sent to study art in Italy, thanks to several wealthy patrons. William, a charming and skilful social climber, made several influential friends on his travels, including the wealthy and sophisticated Earl of Burlington.

Image: In this self-portrait from the ceiling of the King’s Staircase at Kensington Palace, Kent is dressed in brown, with his mistress Elizabeth Butler next to him.

Skilful social climber

In 1719, William Kent returned to London from his Italian travels, looking for work.  His friend Lord Burlington used his high ranking contacts to introduce the young artist to the royal household.

George I was searching for a ‘dazzling’ painter to decorate his new state apartments at Kensington; Kent saw his chance. He undercut the official royal painter, Sir James Thornhill’s quote by several hundred pounds, and won the job.

Did you know?

Kent’s first royal commission stirred up jealousy: a highly-critical rival suggested that he had cheated on his materials to save money!

The Cupola Room, looking south east, showing William Kent's painted decoration of the walls and ceiling and an 18th-century musical clock the 'Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World'
This room was the principal state room of the palace. It was here that Princess Victoria (later Queen) was christened in 1819

The room that launched a career

With his rivals brushed aside, and with George I’s blessing, Kent set to work on the largest of the state apartments, the Cupola Room.

He was closely monitored by a nit-picking committee from the Office of Works, but his new fashionable Italianate style (and Kent’s powerful friends) tipped the balance of opinion in his favour. And George I loved the clever décor, full of eye-tricking illusions.

Kent made the whole room resemble a four-sided Roman cupola (a rounded dome). The illusion is enhanced by the steeply curved ceiling, with the Garter Star at its apex.

Image: At the centre of the Cupola Room is an 18th-century musical clock, known as the 'Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World'. 

 

The Cupola Room

When the room was finished, with its painted pilasters, marble chimney piece and gilded lead statues it must have dazzled in the flickering candlelight, but others called it a ‘terrible glaring show’. However, George I loved it.

Kent went on to decorate several other rooms at the palace, including the extraordinary King’s Staircase.

He also remodelled and redecorated the King’s Gallery, originally built for William III, between 1725 and 1727.

The staircase was painted by William Kent and completed in 1724. The walls depicts an elaborate arcaded gallery with figures behind a balustrade. Many are identifiable as members of King George I's court. The wrought iron balustrade is by Jean Tijou

A painter, architect and father of modern gardening. In the first … he was below mediocrity; in the second he was a restorer of the science, in the last an original …

Horace Walpole, who thought Kent’s real talent was for landscape design.

Detail of the King's Staircase at Kensington Palace showing members of King George I's court.

The puzzle of the King's Staircase

The King’s Staircase was created by Kent in the 1720’s for George I. We believe that Kent used people from the royal household as his sitters. But who are they? There are 45 people in the painting (including Kent himself), but so far only 12 have been identified with evidence from other portraits and court records. The painting presents historians with an enormous puzzle. 

Image: Included in this scene is Peter the Wild Boy (in the green coat), a feral child found in the woods of Germany and brought to court as a kind of pet. The man standing beside him is Dr John Arbuthnot, medical doctor and satirist, who tried to teach Peter how to speak.

Apartment for a spoilt second son

By 1732, William Kent’s work at Kensington Palace had won him a huge number of admirers, among them George II and Queen Caroline.

The King commissioned Kent to improve the royal accommodation at Hampton Court Palace, in particular to transform the dilapidated Tudor royal apartments in Clock Court into a sumptuous apartment for their favoured second son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.  

Did you know?

The doted-on William Augustus grew up to be a vicious military commander, nicknamed ‘The Butcher of Culloden’.

The former Cumberland Suite newly re-presented as a flexible royal art gallery with a rotating display of masterpieces from the Royal Collection.

Fit for a prince

Little expense was spared for the favoured son’s new suite of rooms at Hampton Court. 

Kent designed the new range in Gothic style, with other architectural elements, in an attempt to match the Tudor buildings around it.

This image shows one of the four final rooms of the Duke’s grand apartments, which today have become the Cumberland Art Gallery, housing a fabulous rotating collection of Royal Collection artworks.

 

The Queen's Staircase, looking north-west. Showing wall paintings by William Kent.

The Queen's Staircase

In 1734, Queen Caroline invited her favourite architect and designer, William Kent to redecorate the stairs to the Queen’s State apartments at Hampton Court Palace. Kent’s Roman-inspired setting includes an homage to the Queen, whom he compares to the ancient goddess Britannia. 

He painted the walls with a series of trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) niches and half-domed spaces with classical sculptures, and the Garter star and royal ciphers within the ceiling. 

Death and legacy

Kent went on to be a highly successful and much-sought after designer.  Apart from the palaces of Kensington and Hampton Court, his other houses, gardens and interiors can be seen all over England. However, his work divided opinion both during his life and after his death. To some he was a multi-talented genius; to others, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘over-rated’.

Everyone agrees that the man himself was fond of the good life, with his love of ‘high feeding and inaction’ clearly demonstrated in his ample proportions, and probably leading to his relatively early death in 1748. He never married, and left his mistress Elizabeth Butler part of his £10,000 estate.

Image: The Queen's Staircase walls and ceiling were painted by William Kent in 1735. On the west wall is the painting 'Mercury Presenting the Liberal Arts to Apollo and Diana' by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1628. The wrought-iron balustrade in the foreground was designed by the Huguenot ironworker Jean Tijou.

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