Three Days in London (Part 1 of 3)

Paolo Veronese, fragment of the Petrobelli Altarpiece: Dead Christ with Angels (c. 1563), oil on canvas, 221 x 250.5 cm. NGC. Restored thanks to the generous support of the Members, Supporting Friends and Donors of the NGC and the NGC Foundation

On a brief personal trip to London recently, I spent three solid days in museums. There was nothing particularly unusual in that, since for me the study of art is both a profession and a pastime. With considerable anticipation, I had come to see the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery. Passionate about the greatest colourist of the 16th century, I did not much care what else was on but, as luck would have it that weekend, London turned out to be a feast of complementary shows.

Veronese’s work has been familiar to me from art books since childhood, but it had definitively seduced me only recently. A few years ago, the NGC reunited his Petrobelli Altarpiece after Stephen Gritt, our gifted Director of Conservation and Research, restored Dead Christ with Angels, c. 1563—the work’s remarkable lunette, which he had found in our vaults, mouldering away for nearly a century. The experience of that one-work show was so strong—the book, the lectures, the website, the anecdotes, the conversations with experts and non-experts alike, the sustained and careful looking—that I’ve been seeking out pictures by the Venetian master ever since. In fact, I’ve grown so fond of him that an exhibition boasting 50 works by Veronese would lure me to the ends of the earth. Luckily, a quick trip to London from Ottawa is a piece of cake.

The night flight landed on Friday at 6:30 in the morning. Having no checked bags, I immediately headed for the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, two tube stops away from my hotel in South Kensington: the London base I prefer for its convenience, familiarity and reasonable rates.

 

After a morning spent on last-minute Gallery business that took me to a suburban warehouse, I headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum two blocks from the hotel to spend the afternoon in the William Kent exhibition. One of my favourite English houses since student days has been Holkham Hall, the Norfolk home of the Earls of Leicester: a stupendous and idiosyncratic Palladian pile in tawny brick attributed to Kent. After longing to see it for some twenty-five years, I finally visited Holkham while on vacation last year. Needless to say, a whole show dedicated to William Kent was a nice surprise.

The most complete example of William Kent’s work: Holkham Hall in North Norfolk, home of the Coke family and the Earls of Leicester. Built between 1734 and 1764 by Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, and designed by William Kent (1685–1748). Photo © Holkham Estate

Made up of drawings, plans, maquettes, furniture, decorative objects and a few paintings, the show is a fine introduction to this unusual personality—the bane of Hogarth, who satirized him mercilessly. Kent is a figure of some mystery, probably because he was largely forgotten after his death, his articulate contemporary denigrators having survived him. Twentieth-century scholars restored Kent to art history, but much of his character and accomplishments are speculation.

He must have been quite charismatic. Despite being a truly mediocre painter, in 1709 this half-educated Yorkshireman of modest origins managed to talk his way into free art training in Italy, where he extracted annual stipends from an ever-more-impressive succession of English lords on the Grand Tour—most notably the wealthy and influential Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who would be his collaborator for the next three decades. The man his patrons affectionately called “Kentino” attracted still more lucrative relationships once back in England ten years later:  Thomas Coke (pronounced Cook), the 1st Earl of Leicester and builder of Holkham; George II and his wife Queen Caroline; and their estranged son, the extravagant Prince Frederick. Such connections made him the most fashionable jack-of-all-aesthetic-trades for the remainder of his life.

William Aikman, William Kent, oil on canvas, ca. 1723–25. Canvas © National Portrait Gallery, London

Today, we credit Kent for having cleverly anglicized the Italian Baroque in architecture and decoration for the new Hanoverian court, though reined in by Burlington. The French sensibility had fallen from grace in Protestant England after the Catholic Bourbons chose to harbour their cousin the Stuart Pretender. Most significantly, Kent created the first jardins à l’anglaise—the ultimate English rebuke to French taste. 

Exaggeration is the hallmark of Kent’s style. His furniture often appears to caricature the Baroque. For example, his chairs and stools seem more for show than for comfort—in fact, some look rather precarious. Kent’s interiors are not subtle, either, but instead quite lavish with sometimes-outsized detailing, and a fondness for great expanses of marble or white plaster, for a general surfeit of gilding, and for patterned wall fabrics in an opulent red, a tart green or a very royal blue.

 

 

The Victoria and Albert Museum presents William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, on view at the V&A until July 13, 2014.

Despite the surface bling, however, there is sensitivity to accompany the boldness that, for me, translates into a kind of friendliness. To my way of thinking, this is good-natured, corn-fed Classicism: imagine a slightly ungainly but hale country boy in a brand new tuxedo who dressed up more to please than to impress. Kent’s style reminds me a bit of Gianni Versace’s, if you will pardon the anachronism: a pastiche that loves the model, but wants more. This approach worked brilliantly in Kent’s revolutionary landscaping, which was based on paintings that imagined the Arcadian paradise of the ancients—such as works by Claude Lorrain, of which there is a roomful at Holkham. When it comes to the buildings, though, it is hard to know how much was Kent’s, and how much reflected the sensibility of his “managing” partner Lord Burlington. And there are also frequently other hands at work, such as with—again—the sometimes-gauche Palladianism of the still-impressive Holkham Hall.

 

Mirror attributed to William Kent, probably for the White House, Kew. Carving attributed to John Boson. Gilt pine, mirror glass, 1733–34. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Produced, like the show itself, by the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, the accompanying book is a massive compendium of new scholarship. Despite the size, I was too eager to have it, and carried the behemoth home, along with an erudite and irreverently entertaining biography of Kent by Thomas Mowl. 

To read Part 2 and visits to Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery and Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna at the Royal Academy, click hereTo read Part 3 and visits to Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern, Martin Creed: What's the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery, and The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714—1760 at Buckingham Palace, click here.

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