(born c. 1685, Bridlington, Yorkshire, Eng.—died April 12,
1748, London), English architect, interior designer,
landscape gardener, and painter, a principal master of the
Palladian architectural style in England and pioneer in the
creation of the “informal” English garden.
Kent was said to have been apprenticed to a coach painter
at Hull. Local patrons, impressed by his talent, sent him to
study painting in Rome from 1709 to 1719. There he studied
under Benedetto Luti.
In Rome he also met the Earl of Burlington, the foremost
architectural patron of the 18th century in England and the
principal promoter of Andrea Palladio’s classical building
style (Palladianism). He took Kent back to London in 1719 to
decorate Burlington House in Piccadilly, where Kent then
lived for the rest of his life. The association with
Burlington had a determining effect on Kent’s rather severe
architectural style, which was characterized by
well-proportioned masses arranged in simple relationships.
Although later Neoclassical architects, such as Robert Adam,
were to criticize Kent’s works as “immeasurably ponderous,”
his influence on them was considerable. Kent was also
familiar with the style of Inigo Jones, whose Designs
(published 1727) Kent edited.
By the 1730s Kent had become a fashionable architect.
Among his principal buildings is Holkham Hall, Norfolk
(begun 1734). Here, as in other works, Kent designed
interiors and even furniture, becoming one of the earliest
English architects to plan a house in one unified design
scheme. Kent’s best known works came out of his appointment,
through Burlington’s influence, as a master carpenter in the
Office of Works (1725). The Royal Mews (1732), the treasury
buildings, Whitehall (1734–36), and the Horse Guards
Building in Whitehall (1750–58; completed after Kent’s
death) are all part of Burlington’s grand intention of
rectifying the sorry state of England’s architecture by
adhering more closely to classical precedent.
The rather theatrical interiors of some of these
structures, as of the masterful No. 44 Berkeley Square
(1742–44), and Kent’s taste for fanciful Gothic style in
furniture designs suggest that he wore his Palladianism
lightly and that, in the absence of Burlington’s
overpowering influence, Kent might as easily have become a
master of the Baroque.
It was in his gardens—conceived of as natural landscapes to
contrast with the classical severity of his buildings—that
Kent may have achieved his freest expression. He created
gardens at Rousham Hall, Oxfordshire (1738–41), and Stowe
House, Buckinghamshire (c. 1730), where winding paths and
open vistas lead to small classical temples in informal
wooded glades. In describing the revolt from formality in
garden design, Horace Walpole wrote that Kent saw that “all
Nature was a garden.” The informal and irregular landscaping
at these sites and others, such as Pope’s Villa, Twickenham,
Middlesex (for Alexander Pope; c. 1730), and Richmond
Gardens, Surrey, were a marked departure from the manicured,
symmetrical precision of French gardens such as those at
Versailles. The English style soon crossed the Channel and
had a substantial impact in France during the second half of
the 18th century.