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William Kent

(1685—1748) painter, architect, and designer of gardens and interior furnishings

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(bapt. Bridlington, Yorkshire, 1 Jan. 1686; d London, 12 Apr. 1748).

English architect, designer, landscape gardener, and painter, the most versatile British artist of his time. He began his career as a painter and spent a decade (1709–19) in Italy, mainly Rome, where in 1717 he painted a ceiling in the church of S. Giuliano dei Fiamminghi (offering to work without payment for the chance to establish his reputation). As a guide and art dealer for Englishmen on the Grand Tour he met the architect and patron Lord Burlington, with whom he returned to London in 1719. From then until Kent's death in 1748 the two were inseparable partners. Initially Kent was employed mainly as a decorative painter (notably at Burlington House and Kensington Palace, both in London), but his talent in this field was described by Horace Walpole as ‘below mediocrity’ and he turned increasingly to architecture and design. His biggest architectural commission was Holkham Hall, Norfolk, begun in 1734 for the 1st Earl of Leicester, whom he had initially met in Rome. Externally it is in a severe Palladian style, but the opulent interior has been described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘more consistently palatial than that of almost any other house in England’. Kent was the first British artist to envision an interior and its furnishings as a unified scheme and he designed some impressively grand furniture, including the magnificent state bed (1732) at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. His other work as a designer was highly varied: it included book illustrations, sculpture (notably the Isaac Newton monument (1731), carved by Rysbrack, and the Shakespeare monument (1740), carved by Scheemakers, both in Westminster Abbey), and a state barge (1731–2, Nat. Maritime Mus., London) for Frederick, Prince of Wales (see Royal Collection). In his later years he worked mainly as a garden designer, in which field he was a key figure in the development of the informal style later particularly associated with Capability Brown. Although he was a painter of little talent, Kent has the distinction of painting the earliest medieval history subjects in British art—a series of three pictures for Queen Caroline depicting scenes from the life of Henry V (c.1730, Royal Coll.). There is no attempt to recreate the scenes accurately, and in fact there is some doubt whether one of the pictures is intended to represent the Battle of Agincourt (1415) or the Battle of Crécy (1346).

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