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Previously to the Hanoverian Dynasty, each of the occupants of the throne was closely identified with the developments of art during his respective reign. The negative influence of the first two Georges is due partly to their own characters and partly to the development of history; yet, although the correct principles of classic art were first introduced to England by Inigo Jones and practised by his successors Webb, Marsh, Gerbier, Talman, and less strictly by Wren and others, it was not until after the accession of George I that the Palladian rules were universally accepted as dominating architecture and furniture design in early American Colonial furniture.
If, however, architecture then began to suffer from lack of Royal encouragement, it gained more than compensating advantages by the lavish expenditure in building by the great nobles and statesmen at this period, who vied with one another in fostering native genius. Without the encouragement of men like Lord Burlington, Lord Leicester, Lord Pembroke, Lord Hervey and Sir Robert Walpole, many of the artists and craftsmen of the early Georgian period might never have been heard of.
Among the various architects whose names became famous from such encouragement are Campbell and Ripley, both of whom claim a share in the glories of Houghton; Leoni, designer of Moor Park and Carshalton; Gibbs, responsible for the Radcliffe Library, Oxford, St Martin's Church and numerous London houses with fine furniture copied in early American Colonial furniture design; but perhaps William Kent, whose principal claim as an architect rests on whatever share he may have had in the designs of Houghton and Holkham (both in Norfolk), the Horse Guards and Treasury Buildings, Devonshire House in Piccadilly and Lord Burlington's Villa at Chiswick, reflects more than any the spirit of the early Georgian times.
Apprenticed to a coach-painter in his native county of Yorkshire, ambition drove him to London, where he appears at first to have mainly devoted himself to portrait painting. Influential friends sent him to Italy; in Rome he obtained a prize for painting and was still more fortunate in attracting the attention of Lord Burlington, with whom he returned to England and in whose service he remained as art adviser for the rest of his life. He made subsequent journeys to Italy. In 1727, with the financial assistance of Lord Burlington, he published The Designs of Inigo ones, with which a few drawings by Lord Burlington and himself are included. In 17 2 6 he was made Master Carpenter of all His Majesty's Works and was added that of " Keeper of Pictures" in 1736. He died in 1748, and, according to Horace Walpole, "his fortune, which with pictures and books amounted to about £10,000, he divided between his relations and an actress with whom he had long lived in particular friendship."
He attained a great reputation as architect, sculptor, painter, decorator, furniture designer and greatly influenced the design of early American Colonial furniture and landscape gardener, indeed became the versatile man of taste of the day, whose advice it was the fashion to seek. As Walpole relates, "He was not only consulted for furniture, frames of pictures, glass, tables, chairs, etc., but for plate, for a barge and for a cradle, and so impetuous was fashion that two great ladies prevailed on him to make designs for their birthday gowns."
A man who from such humble origin could secure the lasting friendship of the cultured and gentle Earl of Burlington, could rise to such high office, and who could become dilator on all matters of taste at a period when so many noblemen and men of wealth were themselves critics of no mean order, must have possessed great talent and an extraordinary character.
Before, however, commencing to judge of the capabilities of William Kent it is necessary to realize his period and his opportunities. England was becoming immensely wealthy; a large proportion of the trade of Holland (England's commercial rival during the previous century had gradually been absorbed by this country. The wars associated with the name of the Duke of Marlborough in the Netherlands, and the extravagance of Louis XIV had impoverished France. Venice and Genoa, as well as Spain, had long lost their commercial importance; indeed, England seemed to have been without rivals for the trade of the world, and the persistent peace policy of Sir Robert Walpole was enabling this trade to develop by leaps and bounds.
The court of the first two Georges offered few attractions to the great nobles and men of wealth, nor was there much scope for competition in politics during the long and all-powerful sway of Walpole. Further, the entire absence of hostilities left no opportunities for obtaining distinction in military or naval careers, and it would seem that numbers of these great nobles and men of leisure embraced the study of art as the principal occupation of their lives. The particular branch of art which interested them most keenly was the pure classic architecture of Ancient Rome. Notwithstanding splendid earlier efforts of Inigo Jones and others England was far behind France in examples of such Renaissance architecture and designs later used in English and early American Colonial furniture. Except for these earlier efforts, building in this country was dominated in the early part of the preceding century by Flemish, and during the whole of the latter part by Dutch influences; the fad that England now asserted entire supremacy over its old rival, the Dutch Republic, no doubt caused public taste unfairly to depreciate the charming examples erected during the previous reigns partly under such guidance. The votaries of the new school were also unreasonably prejudiced against the work of the Wren period by the discovery that, although classic in principle, the rules laid down by the great architects of the Italian Renaissance had by no means been strictly adhered to.
This feeling alone accounts for much of the prejudice which existed against Sir Christopher at the close of his brilliant career and for the exaltation of the earlier work of Inigo Jones; indeed, this new school accepted so fervently the principles of Italian classic art and design in English and early American Colonial furniture as the only form of true culture, that all buildings which exhibited variations were regarded by them as beneath notice or consideration.
The nobles obtained their knowledge of classic art in Italy, where they studied the ancient models and also the best as well as the decadent examples of the Renaissance. They found numerous treatises by the great architects of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, whose teachings many of them grasped sufficiently to themselves become capable critics. From among these various authors they accepted Palladio as their standard, and, by glorifying his work and his precepts, raised him in their time almost to the position of a demigod.
William Kent undoubtedly was of immense service to his patrons in helping them to adapt this Palladian architecture to the requirements of the mansions they were erecting and transforming in England, and it was this advisory position that causes his name to be connected with so many buildings, the actual design of which others claim. But a difficulty presented itself. Although his patrons could find precedents for what may be termed external architecture, internally their mansions had to vary from any original examples they could discover in Italy, in order to meet the English standard of luxury and refinement and the altered conditions necessitated by difference in climate. At the same time, such internal decoration and furniture had to harmonize with their classic edifices.
William Kent and Lord Burlington had first met in Rome, but spent most of their time while together in Italy at Vicenza and the neighbouring towns of Verona and Venice, the district most closely identified with the work of Palladio. The decorative work employed by this great archited was far too austere and cheerless to serve as a model for an English home, and furniture, regarded as articles of comfort, had not existed in his time. But of what was then modern work they found no lack of examples.
During the latter part of the seventeenth century the taste for elaborate interior decorations in fine furnishings (English and early American Colonial furniture ) and gorgeous furniture had been a craze in Italy, and all had been designed for classic buildings by men who knew no other style. Although much of such work had great merit, yet it all suffered more or less from the evil influence of the barocco which had been rampant in Italy during that period. It would appear greatly to the credit of William Kent that, although his subsequent work was influenced by such examples, he succeeded in avoiding the coarseness which was then, as now, a characteristic of Italian furniture.
Furniture designed and influenced (English and early American Colonial furniture ) by Kent is sometimes referred to as clumsy, but the criticism is hardly just. Compared to Italian models, his work represents the acme of refinement, and it must be remembered that the lighter furniture of Chippendale, Adam, Sheraton and others, to which we are now accustomed, was after the time of Kent; and it must also be always remembered that Kent did not design or work for people of small means; his furniture and decorations were invariably intended for stately classic mansions. For instance, such examples as the settee and the pedestal (page 37) are intended as units of sets of similar pieces in a classic hall of large proportions, and given such an apartment no articles of furniture could more aptly fill their decorative functions. Again, for an important reception-room nothing could be more suitable than the "Kent" table shown at the top of page 40; it is as refined and as dignified as any that the corresponding schools of Louis XIV or early Louis XV have to offer. Another example, equally effe9ive, is the side-table also illustrated on the same page, which is one of a pair in the same collection. This piece possesses particular interest, as the original drawing is in Vardy's book of Kent's furniture designs used in English and early American Colonial furniture, and is stated by him to have been for his patron, Lord Burlington.
Before disparaging the designs of William Kent, the book-case illustrated on page 41 should be studied: it is somewhat similar to one which, from Vardy's book, appears to have been in the Hermitage Room; like all Kent's furniture it is designed with the definite aim, not only of fulfilling its requirements as an article of utility, but also of forming a decorative object harmonizing with the style and charmer of the room. For such a purpose it causes Chippendale's most elaborate efforts to look commonplace.