Life beyond Elmbridge
By 1709 when he set sail for Italy William Cant had changed his surname to Kent in order to avoid mischievous innuendo. He was born at number 45, The Toft, Bridlington, the son of a prosperous carpenter and a man of some local prominence. The young Cant probably attended the local grammar school. He was fortunate in attracting the support of local patrons including Sir William Wentworth of Bretton Park, West Riding and Sir Richard Osbaldeston. These men, '...raisd a contribution and recommended him to propper persons at London to direct him to Italy' (George Vertue, contemporary engraver & antiquary, Note books, 3.139). So, with his new surname and in the company of John Talman, the antiquary and son of the renowned architect William Talman, William Kent arrived in Pisa in October 1709. He had already spent some time in London and was recorded as being a 'Limner' or water-colourist. The ten years Kent spent in Italy were pivotal to the course of his life and career. It was here that he studied painting under Giuseppe Chiari ( 1654 - 1727), visited Florence and Rome and was exposed to Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture as well as the work of Andrea Palladio. The classic temples, statuary and grottoes of Italian gardens also made a lasting impression on him. During this period Kent made two friendships which were to be instrumental in the development of his career: one with Thomas Coke, Viscount Townshend of Norfolk (1697-1759, Earl of Leicester from 1744) and the other with Robert Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1754). These were lifelong friendships which took Kent to the heart of the English establishment, with its fruitful access to lucrative commissions.
Once back in London William Kent was able to lay claim to a 'home' at Burlington House and with Burlington's wealth, contacts and drive combined with his own good humour, charm and ability set about creating a mode of interior decoration for Palladian houses whilst contrarily launching the Gothic stylistic movement, and finally at the start of the eighteenth century creating the pastoral, Arcadian and ultimately Rococo garden design that would result in the 'English Garden' landscape style that would soon be imitated across Western Europe. The following is a selective list of his prestigious projects and clients between the early 1720s and the late 1740s:
a) Domestic Work
- Burlington House, London, for Lord Burlington, interior decoration
- Chiswick Villa, London, again for Lord Burlington, interiors, furniture and gardens
- Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for Sir Robert Walpole, interiors, furniture and stables
- Ditchley House, Oxfordshire, for the Earl off Litchfield, interiors
- Raynham Hall, Norfolk, for Viscount Townshend, interiors and furniture
- Esher Place and Gardens for Henry Pelham
- Holkham Hall, Norfolk, gardens and buildings for Thomas Coke, Viscount Townshend
- Claremont Garden, garden buildings, of which only the domed temple on the island in the lake survives
- Oatlands Palace, garden building, since demolished
- Wakefield Lodge, Northamptonshire
b) Public Buildings & Royal Commissions
- Royal State Barge
- Kensington Palace, interiors, including Cupola Room, several murals and painted ceilings
- Former Treasury building Whitehall
- York Minster, Gothic pulpit and choir furniture, since removed
William Kent was an easy-going and generous spirited man who inspired affection and pursued a long and successful career. He died at the age of 63 leaving his descendants well provided for. He was buried at Chiswick in the family vault of his great friend the Earl of Burlington.
Life in Elmbridge
In 1729 Henry Pelham (1694-1754) who served as Prime Minister from 1743 to 1754, bought the Jacobean property Esher Place which had once belonged to the Bishops of Winchester. Pelham opted for a Gothic style house with Kent endeavouring to improve the building that was already there. Waynflete's Tower which was built at the same time as the late fifteenth century house was modified by Kent: he added the two three bay wings of three stories as well as the one story porch between the turrets. Kent's work at Esher Place was the first use of Gothic revival style anywhere. He changed the orientation of the house away from the river.
Horace Walpole's view of Kent's landscape designing was that: 'the Great principles on which he worked were perspective, and light and shade.' At Esher Place he had 200 acres on which to apply these principles. In Alexander Pope's words he, "called in the country" by returning the park to its natural state. The area nearest the house was kept simple to ensure a clear view of the park. Formality was swept away with trees left to grow as nature decreed but often grouped to break up the monotony of wide open spaces. Strategically placed buildings brought reminders of Gothic and Classical antiquities. According to George Vertue, 'No nobleman's garden was thought to be of taste, unless Mr Kent had disposed or planted...' Kent provided the ideal retreat for Henry Pelham where he could entertain politicians, royalty and the creative elite of Georgian society. What remains of his work today is Waynflete Tower by the River Mole, a Palladian Temple in a back garden, two lodges at the entrance to Esher Place and the arch leading through to the walled Kitchen Garden.
Nearby, at Claremont, Henry Pelham's brother, Thomas Pelham-Hobbes, Duke of Newcastle (1693-1768; Prime Minister 1754-56) commissioned William Kent, albeit restricted by a small budget, to develop the landscaping and buildings of Vanbrugh and Charles Bridgeman. He widened Bridgeman's round pond into a large lake with the wooded island and Belisle Temple that still remain.
William Kent is best remembered as the architect responsible for the revival of the Palladian style in England and as the instigator of the English landscape garden which his talented apprentice, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown took to even greater heights. Kent revolutionized garden design. In 1780, Horace Walpole credited William Kent as having, 'leapt the fence and seen that all nature was a garden' and in 'The Seasons', the Scots poet, James Thomson (author of the lyrics of Rule, Britannia) refers to, 'Esher's peaceful grove/ where Kent and Nature vie for Pelham's love.' The majority of Kent's designs are held in London by the British Museum, the Public Record Office, the Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir John Saone's Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum; in Oxford by the Ashmolean Museum and at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.
- Jane Dunn, Read My Heart, Dorothy Osborne & Sir William Temple, A Love Story in the Age of Revolution, Harper Press, Great Britain, 2008
- John Harris, 'A William Kent Discovery: Designs for Esher Place, Surrey', Country Life, 14 May, 1959
- John Harris, 'Kent, William ( bap. 1686, d.748)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [www.oxforddnb.com/view.article/15424, accessed 11 Jan 2011]
- Lisa Hutchins, Esher & Claygate Past, London, 2001
- Penny Rainbow, A Complete History of the Tower of Esher, A William Waynflete Landmark, 2010
- www.unitetheunion.org/pdf (A History)