Since I’m steeping myself in all things British (while training to be a docent at the Yale Center for British Art), I went to the William Kent exhibit at the Bard Gallery. Kent started out as a painter, and studying in Italy put him close to all those wealthy Brits on a Grand Tour.
So he took up interior design and architecture, working in an Anglo-Palladian style, to help his patrons bring a bit of old world Europe home with them. In other words, he brought an Italian style to British soil, almost ubiquitous in homes and gardens. His style was called Georgian, named for all those George’s who were King.
This console table from Houghton Hall will give you some idea of the decorative arts style. The lions show up on the British Royal Arms and are a symbol of power and courage, as well as knightly virtue. The console lion is surrounded by cornucopias of fruit and flowers, showing wealth and plenty. Of course, the blue marble slab on top is rare and precious. This table really demonstrates the British sense of itself during its empire-building years.
Kent’s garden designs are pretty darn charming and lasting, having innovated the idea of the ‘wilderness’–so much more natural than those geometric gardens of Baroque France. A hundred years or so later, Jane Austen would place a pivotal Pride and Prejudice scene in a “pretty sort of little wilderness.”
I found this drawing of Kent really endearing. “Kent at his Desk” was sketched by Dorothy Boyle, Countess of Burlington, made after 1720. It suggests his comfortable relationship with aristocracy.
How’s yours? If you want more practice, head across the ocean and over to New York Historical Society, just 9 short blocks away.
The beauty of “Beauty’s Legacy” refers to more than just the physical; beauty was moral and social, too. Each exhibit portrait tells a story. Come on one of my tours to hear a few. Meet a charmer of Bob Ingersoll painted by my girl Lilly Martin Spencer, learn some weird fashion trends, and see miniatures of “notorious women” (aka women novelists).
Then if you’re so bold, you can check out NYHS’s recreation of the 1913 Armory show. Patrons of the works in “Beauty’s Legacy” would have been shocked! But all that investment in beauty and luxury and excess and opulence couldn’t last in the face of modernity. Quite a story to explore!