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Christopher Woodward

Putti in His Hands

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain
Edited by Susan Weber (Yale University Press 688pp 60)
Lady Burlington's flower garden, Chiswick, by William Kent, c 1735

I've never forgotten the prince's cradle I saw in a palace in Rome, carved at the height of the early-18th-century Baroque. It was as deep and as long as a beer barrel sliced in two, its exterior gilded and encrusted with shells. At one end a cherub on tiptoes shhhhed through puffed cheeks; at the other a woman's breasts rose over the rim, her uplifted arms transforming into wings. Imagine the view of a child, whose world came into focus rocked by candlelight below a ceiling painted with gods and legends. It was a cradle that could so easily topple over.

For a few years in the 18th century Britain was seduced by the Baroque, with Italy's finest painters and sculptors travelling north to the new rich of a new empire to paint fleshy skies in Grosvenor Square and sculpt demigods in weightless plaster in the cold chapels of country estates. One of the many achievements of this quite stupendous book - published in anticipation of an exhibition about William Kent opening at the V&A this month - is to show Kent as close in spirit to the Baroque as to the neo-Palladianism that became the nation's establishment style for half a century. We're taught to see the 18th century as an age of straight-legged chairs and white-washed geometry: the villas of Chiswick House, say, or Marble Hill. The world revealed in this book is closer to La Grande Bellezza than to Farrow & Ball, and Kent himself comes across as gluttonous, lustful and, above all, alive in his relationship with the classical past.

Born in 1685 in the seaport of Bridlington in Yorkshire, the son of a joiner, Kent grew up a long way away from Roman splendour. His brightness at the charity grammar school caught the eyes of a circle of local gentlemen who funded a journey to Rome. An excellent essay by Catherine Arbuthnott describes the process of patronage at this time, and the experience of a young artist - and, later, guide - in Rome. Kent's return to England in 1719 in the retinue of the young Earl of Burlington coincided with an emerging sense of virtù, in which to be a connoisseur came to be seen as representative of 'the moral health and dignity of the nation'. That was in complete contrast to attitudes in the reign of Charles I, Arbuthnott points out, when the connoisseurship and expense of the royal collection was perceived to be a self-indulgence. Now, patronage became patriotic and splendour virtuous. Burlington's influence at court in the 1720s won Kent control of design for public buildings; the Horse Guards was his last, and was under scaffolding when, in 1748, he died and was buried in Burlington's family vault at Chiswick.

Fifty years ago Rudolf Wittkower published a seminal article, based on close examination of the drawings of antiquities by Andrea Palladio that the earl had been lucky enough to buy, in which the villa built at Chiswick was conceived as a re-imagining of a Roman villa by Burlington and Kent. The article dominated studies of the time, but the V&A exhibition shows that Kent's livelier work was commissioned by the Hon Henry Pelham, who indulged a Romantic, early Gothic Revival renovation of Esher Place and, at his town house at 22 Arlington Street, one of the finest interiors in London. That property's Great Room (now also known as the William Kent Room) has been restored to eye-popping grandeur by the Ritz hotel, which it adjoins; David Watkin, in a masterful essay on the town houses, interprets it in the context of Kent's response to 'movement' in Giulio Romano's work of the 16th century. He also elucidates its function as a house of political reception, pointing out that this was an age in which royal palaces were out-dazzled by the showrooms of the Whig oligarchs. A second late masterpiece is 44 Berkeley Square. Built for the spinster grandee Lady Isabella Finch, it is an ecstatic piece of scenery with flights just one person wide. Today it is the Clermont Club, and you would never guess that behind the anonymous brick facade - all of a piece in the design, significantly - 'is the most exhilarating Baroque staircase in Britain'.

In her essays on furniture Susan Weber points out that Kent's classical models for architecture didn't help with furnishings; nor were there designs by Palladio in that chest brought back from Italy. Kent had to make up from scratch a new style for new interiors. Again, his sources were Baroque: in contrast to the rectilinear simplicity of British furniture he introduced energetic curves, putti and scallop shells. The red velvet upholstery of the Red Saloon at Houghton - spotlit as a case study here - was itself a contemporary Roman touch.

Another surprise is the essay on book illustration by Nick Savage, the head of collections at the Royal Academy. He prises Kent's vignettes and end-pieces away from architectural historians, for whom these have been merely clues to bigger projects, and studies them in their own right. In Gay's Fables there is an elephant reading a book with his trunk; in Pope's Odyssey we have flying mermaids and the Rococo extravagance of the goblet of Mulius. Kent was born to illustrate Ovid's Metamorphoses, reflects Savage, but was sadly never asked; everything Kent touched changed shape.

The book has little biographical material: we have slightly random glimpses of Kent's personality. But that vivacity was a key to his capture of clients; who remembers poor Henry Trench, his fellow student and friend in Rome? And the book does not revisit the question of Kent's apparently supple sexuality; in recent years he has become the doyenne of what Tom Stuart-Smith dubbed, at a visit to Rousham (the gardens of which Kent peopled with naked statues), 'the buttock-first school of garden history'.

It is hard to write about Kent without sounding fruity, as I realise glancing up at this review, and in an overview of twenty-plus essays I might be guilty of exaggerating the degree to which Kent was a jack in the Palladian box. Perhaps I still feel cheated by sitting through so many lectures on Chiswick House, which is a colourless cul-de-sac compared to his work for Pelham; perhaps it is because his sketches reawaken that lust for the classical world and remind me of the teacher who explained that the point of learning the classics is to discover not their linguistic utility but a garden of literature, art and the battered, ancient anvils on which human identity is hammered out.

It is in the contributions by the great historian John Harris that we have a whiff of the man. In a study of the way Kent drew, Harris explains his innovations in how to present a design for a room or a landscape: the picturesque landscape for Esher Place is proposed in sketches of a pastoral scene, inky mirages of Arcadia. These are drawings 'unique in the history of garden design as poetic evocations' of a potential landscape.

But he also specialised in mischievous, telling marginalia such as rabbits dancing by moonlight or helmeted knights. Only Kent recorded the black gardener in Lady Burlington's flower garden: an exceptional snatch of a life otherwise lost to history. And it is in a sketch for a new drawing room for the Duke of Grafton that we see a tender, stooping profile of Lady Burlington herself - incongruous, except that he lived at Burlington House, and gave her drawing lessons. 'She may well have been looking over his shoulder as he worked on this design.' The final pleasure of this book is Harris's closeness to Kent: both unkempt, red-cheeked, lusty, gouty and much-loved. Everyone liked Kent. To the contemporary diarist George Vertue - who didn't, actually - Kent 'sailed through the wayes of life well befriended well employed'.

The book is an astonishment of scholarship (and photography) and hoists Kent shoulder to shoulder with Robert Adam as one of the two great designers of the 18th century. It is the latest partnership between the V&A and the Bard Center in New York, who have also dusted off Thomas Hope, Athenian Stuart and William Beckford for British audiences in a series through which Susan Weber of the Bard has done for British decorative arts what the late Paul Mellon did for our paintings. William Kent is also a final gathering of a generation of distinguished scholars: it has the glee of a final heist by the silver foxes of architectural history.

This is also the heaviest book I have ever held: I have used my osteopath's business card as a page-marker.

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Christopher Woodward is director of the Garden Museum and the author of In Ruins.

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