An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 90

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 17, 2020 - Issue 90
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
It seems, when one gets entranced by the English decorative arts, that all the houses are miles away and require an all day train journey or the hiring of a car where you can hope, if the timetable of house openings is in some way aligned, that you can fit two houses into your schedule. Sometimes that is true, but if you are in London, you have a surfeit of places that you can visit and possibly fit three houses in one day, maybe even four. And the London houses are not to be sneezed at. They may not be set with dramatic landscaping as some of the country houses are, but I can assure you that you will see some incredible things. To that end, I want to cover one of the most central, within London, houses to see, Kensington Palace, still in use by the Royal Family, but also with extraordinary public rooms. Having recently finished the Hogarth biography by Jenny Uglow a little while back, I am intrigued to write about a project that involved one of his great rivals, more like antagonist, William Kent.

Kent's life must have seemed like a fairy tale. He started off as an apprentice in Yorkshire learning sign and coach painting. It is interesting to note that William Hogarth had a great affinity with sign painters and even had a public exhibition of sign painting, but Kent's sign painting days were quickly forgotten after taking up with one of England's richest men, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. (If you have walked through the Burlington Arcade, that was part of his London house, as was the building that houses the Royal Academy.) The fierce competition between Hogarth and Kent was principally in the field of painting, Kent did have classical training in the subject, but to be fair it is something neither Kent or Hogarth truly excelled at and in retrospect, it almost seems ridiculous given the contributions both offered to other aspects of English artistic life in the first half of the 18th century, Hogarth to social and political commentary and Kent to interior design, garden design and furniture design.

It is Kent that I am focusing on here, and he had two major commissions in London through Lord Burlington, one being Kensington Palace where he was hired as a painter and the other being Chiswick House in West London. (Kent usurped James Thornhill in the painting at Kensington Palace. Thornhill became Hogarth's father-in-law so that is where the feud started.) Kensington Palace is not known for its furniture although it has some quite wonderful items including a good number of carved and gilded chandeliers, a really curious clock and plenty of stools and side chairs and a state bed. There is more, but frankly, I don't remember it all because the two things I focused on are directly attributable to Kent, one being the painting around the great staircase which is a kind of trompe l'oeil that shows people leaning over a balcony rail, ostensibly looking at the people (you and me) walking up the grand staircase. It is witty and imaginative and Kent, who was clearly a little cheeky, painted himself into the scene. The second painting is the ceiling of the Etruscan Room. As almost anyone in the art world knows, there is nothing new and yet every artist gets his or her shot to re-create something in their own inimitable fashion and the Etruscan Room is one of those tour de forces that seemed to just roll off of Kent's palate. It is stunning and a revelation. It is actually less "Etruscan" than Roman, but the color scheme of bright reds and blues and the decoration of winged caryatids is just sensational. It is, in my opinion, one of the great English rooms for, at the minimum, its distinct originality. (I have included a link below, but it doesn't do the ceiling or the room justice.) Kent's abilities at decoration are on full display here and they had only just begun as he went on to become England's first great landscape gardener (teacher to Capability Brown) and the instigator of the palatial, baroque style of English furniture. Incredible man, sensational room. The wikipedia on William Kent. The Etruscan room at Kensington Palace.