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.

William Kent’s wash drawing of a temple with “tree trunk” columns, set in a small garden with a pool and concentric beds of flowers, is a design for a flower garden at Chiswick, Lord Burlington’s villa just outside London.

In the eighteenth century, flower gardens were considered the particular domain of women. In 1717, in The Lady’s Recreation, for example, Charles Evelyn referred to their management as “the Diversion of the Ladies.”1 Another example, the flower garden at Redlynch Park in Somerset, laid out in 1747–48, was known as the “Ladies’ Garden.” In 1730, more than 180 women subscribed to Robert Furber’s catalogue of plants and seeds, Twelve Months of Flowers, one of whom was Lady Burlington.

The garden in the sketch was commissioned by Lady Burlington, rather than by her husband, Kent’s patron Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington. She is likely to be the elegantly dressed figure who appears to the left of the temple in Kent’s sketch. The youth with the wheelbarrow is possibly her quarrelsome footman, Joseph Caesar, about whom she complained in a letter of 1728, or the boy James Cambridge for whose schooling she paid in 1738 and 1739–40. Supporting her role in planning this garden is a letter from Lord Burlington to his wife. On September 16, 1735, he wrote: “I am sorry that your garden goes on so slow, tho you must comfort your self with reflecting, that it is a misfortune which attends all great works.”2 A week later he wrote again, hinting that he did not see the point of one feature of the design, the diagonal orientation of the building.3 While he clearly took an interest in the work, he was not the client.

Kent’s design for Lady Burlington’s flower garden is an important one in his oeuvre. It looks back to classical precedents, to the idea that the origins of architecture could be found in nature. At the same time, it appears to anticipate the idea of the “gardenesque” which was first framed in the nineteenth century by John Claudius Loudon. It is also an unusual drawing for Kent, as it uses the patterned geometries that his career as a landscape designer is often assumed to have swept away.

In his garden designs, Kent is best known for the structural landscape interventions, creating lakes and serpentining rivers, raising artificial hills, planting groves of trees, and cutting winding paths through woodlands. His ornamental plantings have rarely been studied, but they also featured in his garden plans, such as those at Chiswick House, Rousham, and Esher. For example, inTour Thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain (1738), Daniel Defoe describes a winding path at Chiswick bordered with shrubs, roses, and honeysuckles. At Rousham, a letter written in 1750 by the gardener John Maclary refers to several flower-lined pathways, including “a pleasant green Walk, backt with all sorts of Flowers and Flowering Shrubs” that ran from the top of Kent’s Praeneste terrace.4 There is even a surviving planting plan for part of the gardens at Esher in which he may have intended clumped pots or flowering shrubs to border a canal.5 Alexander Pope’s friend Philip Southcote claimed that he was responsible for Kent’s floral planting, saying that he had “prevailed on Kent to resume flowers in the natural way of gardening, in a natural way.”6

Lady’s Burlington’s flower garden is quite different from these other designs: the shrubs and plants themselves provide structure and are arranged in geometrical shapes rather than the natural ones touted by Southcote. This arrangement may owe a debt to the working herbariums of the great houses of previous centuries, in which the plants produced food, dyes, and medicines. Such gardens were commonly planted in structured hierarchies according to use. Kent arranged the plants in Lady Burlington’s garden in concentric circles, separated by paths. He was not the first eighteenth-century designer to do this—Dickie Bateman’s circular flowerbeds at the Grove, Old Windsor, may precede Kent’s design—but by the late eighteenth century, the planning that Kent presents in this design had become a commonplace for flower gardens. Nathaniel Swinden suggested in hisBeauties of Flora Display’d (1778) that plants should be arranged “like seats at the Theatre,” and John Trusler, in hisElements of Modern Gardening (1784) proposed that shrubs should be set out in the shape of an amphitheater.7 In the nineteenth century, these ideas would evolve into the “gardenesque,” a term coined by John Claudius Loudon, who argued that planting should be made recognizable as art through the use of exotic specimen plants, geometrical beds, and the separation of individual plants so that their best forms could be seen.

Kent’s “tree-trunk” temple has a distinguished ancestry. The Roman architect Vitruvius had posited that the earliest human constructions had been made from branches, and that columns in architecture were derived from trees. The idea was taken up in the fifteenth century by Leon Battista Alberti, whose De Re Aedificatoria was the first Renaissance treatise to include garden design. It described the “beautiful effect some of the more lively architects used … to make columns, especially in the porticos of their gardens, with knots in the shafts in imitation of trees which had their branches cut off, or girded round with a cincture of boughs.”8 Lord Burlington kept a copy of the 1550 Florence edition of Alberti’s treatise in the library at Chiswick, and these ideas were discussed in the circles in which Kent moved.

It is also possible that Kent’s small, jewel-like garden for Lady Burlington has a literary source. Kent personally owned two copies of the mysterious fifteenth-century fantasy, theHypnerotomachia of Poliphilus. This book describes the journey of the hero Poliphilus through the fantastic palace and magnificent gardens of Queen Eleutirillide. The queen’s orchard was walled with columns bound together with flowering branches made of glass and gold. It was filled with garden pots containing plants in bright colors. Kent’s only other use of the “tree-trunk” column motif was in the interior of Merlin’s Cave, a garden building he created for Queen Caroline.

The proposed site of Lady Burlington’s flower garden was wrongly identified for many years. The background gateway with ball finials was assumed by most authorities to be the Burlington Lane gate, which would place this garden on the south side of the Bollo brook, away from the main house. John Harris first recognized that it was in fact the gateway in the wall that ran northeast of the house, as it looked before its replacement with the Inigo Jones gate in 1738. Kent’s design for a flower garden and “tree-trunk” temple was therefore intended for the rectangular patch of ground bordered by Lady Burlington’s Summer Parlour and the old stable block of Chiswick House.

The design was not executed. Instead of a flower garden, Lady Burlington had an aviary built here which appears in plan and elevation in John Rocque’s map of the gardens of 1736. The circular pool of water embanked on the far side to create a theatrical amphitheater remained, but the most striking elements of the design—the flowerbeds, and tree-trunk temple—were omitted.

1.Charles Evelyn, The Lady’s Recreation (London: G.Grierson, 1717), 1.

2.Lord Burlington to Lady Burlington, September 16, 1735, Devonshire Mss. 127.5, Chatsworth.

3.Lord Burlington to Lady Burlington, September 23, 1735, Devonshire Mss. 127.8, Chatsworth.

4.Rousham Mss., Rousham House, Oxfordshire.

5.V&A E.394-1986.

6.Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes and Characters of Books and Men (1754; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 424.

7.Nathaniel Swinden, Beauties of Flora Display’d (London: J.Fry and Co., 1778), ii. John Trusler, Elements of Modern Gardening(London: Logographic Press, 1784), 64.

8.Leon Battista Alberti, De Re Aedificatoria Book IX chap.1. (London: Edward Owen, 1755), 633.