Kent, William

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Kent, William (1684-1748): English landscape gardener.

William Kent was born in Yorkshire. With local patrons' support he went to study in Italy in 1709 and made a living as a guide for English noblemen making the Grand Tour. In 1719 he met Lord Burlington, with whom he formed a lasting friendship.

With Burlington as his patron, Kent helped to develop and popularize neo-Palladian architecture such as Burlington's at Chiswick House, whose gardens he designed. Neo-Palladian style was an English version of Sixteenth-Century Andrea Palladio's The Four Books of Architecture, based on classical principles. Kent was a friend of poets Pope, Alexander and James Thomson, whose book The Seasons (1730) he illustrated with Claudian elements: pastoral scene, a mountainous background and classical buildings in mid-ground.

Kent's training in art influenced his incorporation into landscapes of architectural structures. Like Vanbrugh, Sir John, Bridgeman, and Gibbs, Kent's landscapes incorporated “gothick” and classical temples and "follies" (fanciful pseudo ruins in Gothic style, Oriental towers or pagodas, and "hermitages" of crudely-assembled stone or wood and thatch). Kent's buildings were intended to remind educated viewers of historical or mythical figures and stories, and required their active imaginations. His work as a set designer and his knowledge of Renaissance gardens, which incorporated outdoor theatres, also influenced his style.

Of his trademark use of the ha-ha, Horace Walpole wrote, "he leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden." The ha-ha, a submerged fence, separated the garden areas near a house from its farther, more naturalistic grounds; originally called an "Ah! Ah!" for its element of surprise, the ha-ha was borrowed from Italian design through an English translation of the French designer D'Argenville's La Théorie et la Pratique du Jardinage (1709, trans. 1712). Kent broke with Italian- and French-influenced geometric garden design to create irregular arrangements of trees and winding, or "serpentine," paths and streams. He was praised for his painterly use of contrasting shade and light, for irregular groupings of trees on hilltops, for "plantations" (thick plantings of trees, sometimes in rows) to hide undesirable scenes, and for graduated levels of a stream meandering to the horizon. In his new English, naturalistic treatment of the grounds of an estate, Kent was the precursor to Brown, Lancelot "Capability".

Kent is well known for designing the Horse Guards block in Whitehall, London. Besides Chiswick House's grounds, he designed or re-designed the gardens at Rousham, Oxfordshire, c. 1737, with an arcade below a terrace and its Temple of the Mill; Claremont; Ester (where he was called "Kentissime"); Hampton Court; Stowe, which contained a great number of architectural structures; and Lord Leicester's Holkham Hall. He died at Burlington House.

Further Reading:

John Dixon Hunt, William Kent: Landscape Garden Designer, 1987.

Margaret Jourdain, The Work of William Kent: Artist, Painter, Designer and Landscape Gardener, 1948.

Mary Jane Curry

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