William Kent

Design for the barge commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales

Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings Collection

William Kent (1685-1748) is regarded as one of Britain's greatest designers. Versatile in style, scale and medium, he applied his talents to grand architecture, furniture and garden planning.

Yet Kent's origins were lowly: the precise date of his birth is not known. It is thought that he was born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, the son of a joiner.

Kent began his career as a sign and coach painter. This was very much a practical education, and it served him well. 

Like many before and after him, he was drawn by the allure of Italy. He made his first trip there in 1709 accompanied by the young architect John Talman. Clearly he was enchanted: in 1714 he returned to Italy with the MP Thomas Coke, this time remaining there until 1719.

Italy was impressive for its art and architecture, the highlights of the Grand Tour, and it was also a good opportunity to meet patrons. In Rome, 1714-1715, Kent would meet his chief patron and supporter Lord Burlington, and it was with Burlington that he returned to England in 1719. Thereafter, Kent was the supreme designer of his age.

Architectural and interior design commissions

Kent undertook several important projects as a painter and interior designer. He decorated the new state rooms at Kensington Palace in 1722 where, backed by Lord Burlington and Thomas Coke, he replaced Sir James Thornhill. He also completed the celebrated interiors of Chiswick House (1727-29), Houghton Hall (1726-31), and Holkham Hall (completed 1764).

Later in his career Kent would also go on to undertake some significant architectural projects, including:

  • the Royal Mews at Charing Cross (1731-33; demolished in 1830)
  • the Treasury Buildings, Whitehall (1733-7)
  • Horse Guards, Whitehall (1750-9)

Garden designs

From the 1730s onwards, Kent became a garden designer for a number of stately homes. Kent's gardens would often be defined as Arcadian set pieces complete with temples, grottos and Palladian bridges. Amongst Kent's most memorable landscape designs were:

  • Alexander Pope's Twickenham Villa (1730)
  • the many buildings at Stowe, Buckinghamshire (c. 1731-40)
  • the gardens of Rousham Park, Oxfordshire (c.1735)

These all survive and continue to intrigue, just as when first completed.

Kent's contribution to Neo-Palladianism in Britain was considerable. In particular, Kent's work emphasised how Palladio's influence could be extended to a range of different disciplines, including interior and landscape design. His brilliance continues to shine.