From the Exhibition:

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain­­ is the first major exhibition to examine the life and career of William Kent (1685­–1748), the most influential designer of the early Georgian era in Britain. The exhibition brings together nearly 200 examples of his elaborate drawings for architecture, gardens, and sculpture, along with gilded furniture, silver, paintings, and illustrated books. Organized by the Bard Graduate Center, New York City and the V&A, London, the exhibition is curated by Susan Weber, founder and director of the BGC and Julius Bryant, Keeper of the Word and Image Department, V&A.

At first sight, this sculpture suggests a Greek or Roman philosopher, dressed in toga and sandals, leaning on a pile of his publications, the eloquent gesture of his open palm helping to expound some great discourse. Alternatively, from the tousled hair, furrowed forehead, and deep-set shaded eyes, he might even be mistaken for some great Romantic composer like Beethoven. His muscular right hand extends its grip on a vital clue to his true identity, however, for among the crisp argumentative angles of the drapery appear a pair of proportional dividers, the essential attribute of a master of geometry. This heroic man of intellect is in fact Isaac Newton, and this model is a rare presentation proposal for the over life-size marble monument, designed by William Kent, that was unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 1731.

Today, Newton’s monument may be Kent’s best-known work of art, albeit due to its inclusion in the popular novel and movie The Da Vinci Code, where it provides a vital clue to the code breakers. In its own day, it commanded even greater attention among London’s fashionable society. In our exhibition, the physical and design context is established through a subsection devoted to the Abbey. As the premier indoor place to promenade in early Georgian Westminster, the Abbey became the center of contemporary art. At the time, sculpture, not painting, represented the British avant-garde. The monument to Newton still holds the most prominent position at the end of the nave, opposite the main west entrance. It was the first in a series of commissions promoted by Alexander Pope and Lord Burlington to make the Abbey the nation’s pantheon. Kent designed four major sculptures for this public space.

Like a secular saint for Protestant Britain, Newton presented more than the great man. It embodied a belief in the scientific order of God’s universe and the natural structure of society. To Burlington and the Whig party, this structure rested in an oligarchy led by a limited monarchy. Queen Caroline promoted the same ideals through commissioning busts of Newton for two new buildings designed by Kent: her garden building, known as the Hermitage, at Richmond and her library at St. James’s Palace. Poems, treatises, engravings, and other sculptures also helped to promote the cult of Newton.

In the exhibition, the series of designs by Kent and Rysbrack reveal the creative development of the composition. Newton’s pose changes from passive to active, from reading while receiving a laurel crown to teaching while even Urania, muse of Astronomy, listens from above. Nearby in the gallery is a glazed stoneware statuette of Shakespeare, a manufactured retail product of about 1780–85, after the monument of Shakespeare that Kent designed for the Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. His Shakespeare, like Newton, was the focus of extensive critical debate, helping to make Westminster Abbey, in effect, the Tate Modern of early Georgian Britain.