Book review: William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, ed. Susan Weber

by The Frame Blog

 The exhibition on William Kent at the V & A (22 March-13 July 2014) was accompanied by a catalogue examining all aspects of Kent’s designs, including his frames.

Book cover  Susan Weber, ed., William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, published by Yale University Press for the Bard Graduate Center, October 2013, pp. 704, 624 colour ill., £60.00

William Kent, according to Horace Walpole, his first biographer, was

‘not only consulted for furniture, as frames of pictures, glasses, tables, chairs etc., but for plate, for a barge, for a cradle’ (p. 469).

But frames, for Kent, were never just one more item in a list of furnishings. He was perhaps the first indigenous British architect and designer to realize the importance of the picture frame within an interior: that it could be to a large extent the unit of articulation for the decoration of internal walls, the emphatic accent for focal points such as the chimneypiece, and the stylistic glue which bound the painting to the architectural interior and to the furnishings and other objects in the room. Kent’s frames are an extension of other architectural features within a room: they match the structure of the doorcases, the chimneypieces and the windows, whilst their decoration echoes elements and motifs from the furniture, looking-glasses, brackets, silverware, metalware, and other objects. His more ornamental frame is an attention-grabbing focusing device, frequently forming part of an architectural centrepiece, and drawing the eye of the spectator irresistibly towards the painting it contains.

The section on frames in the book which accompanied the exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center and at the V & A (William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain) is accorded the dignity of chapterhood – Chapter 9, by Julius Bryant – but it is entitled ‘A note on “Kent” frames’, and this is no more than the truth. Out of a 704-page book, two pages of text and two of images are given over to frames; four illustrations altogether, two picture frames, one looking-glass and one design for a chimneypiece and overmantel. Kent was, of course, a designer on an almost obsessive scale – he is introduced in the website introduction to the exhibition thus:

‘A polymath, he turned his hand from painting to designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardens’.

This is a breadth of achievement and interest to analyze, order, and discuss in discrete chapters; and it takes a total of twenty-one of them (plus the introduction and a chronology), covering such diverse themes as ‘The Royal court, political culture, and the art of friendship’, ‘Kent and Italy’, ‘Kent and the Gothic revival’, ‘Public commissions’, ‘Sources for Kent’s furniture designs’, etc.


William Kent, design for the chimneypiece of the Board Room in the New Treasury. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Practically every one of these chapters has a frame, or several, in it; they march in grids of wood and stucco across ceilings, hold looking-glasses, perch on chimneypieces, define engravings, border cheval screens, and contain memorial sculptures. If you want to know about Kent’s designs for picture frames, Chapter 9 is nothing but the abridgement of a summary: you will have to read many of the 700 other pages. Chapter 5, ‘Kent the Painter’, would perhaps be one choice if you wanted illustrations rather than text, since the ceilings with (from about 1725) their stucco and painted borders, the staircase paintings with their fictive picture frames, and the architectural designs, take us from the 1720s to c.1747-51 in a geographical sweep of British houses, and an overview of Kent’s development from pure painter to decorative artist.

Steven Brindle notes, in this fascinating chapter on Kent the painter, that,

            ‘… the decorative borders of Kent’s ceilings are works of art in their own right, rich in invention and often magnificent in effect. Kent designed all of this himself from the evidence of the original designs in his hand for the King’s Drawing Room at Kensington and the Houghton saloon wall-elevations… [He] had an almost limitless capacity for inventing magnificent decorative work in a variety of styles: the King’s Drawing Room at Kensington has a particularly magnificent scheme of satyrs, leopards, and vine-garlands …. The grotesque scheme, inspired by ancient sources, in the Presence Chamber is completely different, while the grotesque schemes and “garland” schemes at Chiswick, Stowe, and Houghton are different yet again.’

X Houghton Hall staircase Jonathan Becker

William Kent, murals in fictive frames on The Great Staircase, Houghton Hall, 1725-35. Photo: Jonathan Becker

Brindle also gives a description of Kent’s technical methods, including the transfer of architectural detail – such as lengths of egg-&-dart ‘mouldings’ – by the use of pricked pouncing-papers, some of which (used for the Queen’s Staircase at Hampton Court), are illustrated. He examines Kent’s restricted palette in certain schemes, such as the monochrome paintings in fictive frames on a base of olive-green, with gilded detail (see The Great Staircase at Houghton Hall, above). In some cases, Kent seems to have worked out every element of these schemes, executed the main pictorial scenes, and left the decorative work to his unknown assistants.

Kent capitalized on his birth (to a joiner) and his apprenticeship (to a coach- and house- painter) in his understanding of the processes by which his invention came to birth. After that, his uncanny ability to attract influential sponsors and patrons gave him the education, experiences and contacts which nurtured his wide-ranging talents. The year he is first recorded as a painter, working in London (‘William Cant of the City of London, limner’, 1709, p.13), is the same year that he is off to Italy, aged 24, with the antiquary John Talman. There he encounters Thomas Coke of Holkham and Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, with whom he travels back to England, a decade after he left it. In Italy he visits many of the main towns and artistic centres, including, notably, Palladio’s Vicenza. By 1720 he is working with Henry Flitcroft, Burlington’s ex-carpenter, draughtsman and architectural assistant, on The Designs of Inigo Jones . . . with some additional designs (1727). Burlington had purchased a collection of drawings by Inigo Jones and John Webb from John Talman, and the coincidence of a close study of these with Kent’s experience of Palladio’s work in Vicenza and its environs, and with the Baroque interiors of Roman palaces and churches, was the seed-ground for the Palladian (‘Kentian’ or ‘Kent’) style in Britain.

As Julius Bryant points out, in his rather curtailed chapter on frames,

‘ The term “Kent frame” only came into use in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, such frames were called “Palladian,” while in the eighteenth, Lord Burlington, architects, and craftsmen referred to them as “tabernacle frames.” Although not the only kind of frame that Kent designed, they are now synonymous with his name.’ (p.243)

X The Designs of Inigo Jones ... page 56

The Designs of Inigo Jones…, Publish’d by William Kent, vol. I, 1727, page 56.

They have a very simple structure, being fundamentally an anglicization of the cassetta frame, with an architrave profile enriched by classical architectural mouldings, such as egg-&-dart, below the top edge and at the sight (contemporary carvers and gilders often referred to them as ‘architrave frames’). A page of doorcases in The Designs of Inigo Jones … (page 56) reveals one of their sources, in the outset corners of the centre model; whilst a drawing for a chimneypiece in Somerset House by Jones shows this structure even more clearly.

X MichAng Blind window Porta Pia Rome 1561to64

Michelangelo, A blind window with outset corners in the Porta Pia, Rome, 1561-64

These contours and their ornaments – the outset corners, enlarged modillions or brackets, the open or broken pediments, and the form of those pediments, with segmental or triangular shapes offset against each other, and voluted swan’s neck forms – were derived ultimately from the Mannerist games played by Michelangelo with classical architecture (see ‘National Gallery reframings: an update’). The outset corners and geometric ornaments of Mannerist architecture were also to be found in the Spanish ‘Herrera’ style of the 17th century, and by diffusion – via the Spanish presence in Naples and the Netherlands – also in Neapolitan and Northern picture frames. This eclectic genesis gave Jones’s designs their innovative twist, and was highly influential for Kent’s own approach.

Kent’s frames were, however, more structurally than ornamentally similar to Jones’s. The ‘Kent’ frame in its bare essentials as described above – an architrave profile with one or two architectural mouldings – was only the embryonic form. The flat frieze, often merely sanded and gilded, could be covered with bands of carved decoration – enriched flower-chains, Greek fret, Vitruvian scrolls – whilst the top and sight edges became the playground for all kind of leaf and husk moulding. The contour could be elaborated with outset corners at top and bottom, just at the top, or outset on just one rail. The corners of the frieze could be carved with classical paterae, acanthus (‘raffle’) leaves, or rosettes of Baroquely-swirling foliage. The crest could be crowned with pediments of various kinds, often holding shells, masks or têtes espagnolettes, and these could be echoed by the decoration of an apron at the base, making it a true tabernacle frame. Swags of fruit, flowers, oak and other leaves might be looped and skeined across the top of the frame, and let fall in pendants down the sides.

X Sir Godfrey Kneller Charles 2nd Viscount Townshend c1730 Raynham Hall

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, c.1730, Raynham Hall. Photo: courtesy of Charles, 8th Marquess Townshend

Around 1730 Kent designed a frame for Viscount Townshend of Raynham Hall, and four versions of this were made by James Richards, Master Carver to the King, for a set of family portraits (Sir John Ashe, Lady Ashe, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, and his younger brother, Horatio Townshend; information courtesy of Lord Townshend). The portrait by Kneller of the 2nd Viscount was a striking highlight of the exhibition at the V & A; it epitomizes the decorative sophistication of the best of Kent’s designs for frames, their sheer opulence, and the technical skill of the carving. Although the profile is almost the simplest of any type of frame, because the whole surface area is covered in ornament it gives an impression of great richness – but a richness held in check by the strictly linear form of the rails. The contours are softened by the foliate clasps at the sides; the apron, with its shell, raffle leaves, swags and drops; and the crest with foliate S-scrolls above an infill of imbricated scales, husks, raffles leaves, garland, and a female mask. Hung within the monochrome purity of the entrance hall of Raynham Hall, two of the portraits glow like cameos in their rich filigree settings.

This is the way ‘Kent’ frames are designed to be seen – within the interior for which they were designed, and of which they form one important part, along with the internal architectural features which they reflect and which support them. An isolated frame on a white page, or islanded on an exhibition wall, may highlight aspects of style, design and craftsmanship, but it was never intended to be seen out of its element in this way. Chapter 8 of the book, ‘From “Gusto” to “Kentissime” — Kent’s Designs for Country Houses, Villas, and Lodges’, also by Julius Bryant, illustrates this, with ravishing images of interiors from the great Palladian houses of Britain, and Kent’s own plans for and elevations of these rooms. This chapter also tries to clarify Kent’s place in the creation of the houses: not as a lone responsible architect from the beginning of a project to the end, since:

‘His country house commissions evolved informally, from providing decorative paintings to arranging collections to remodeling and extending older houses. In this way Kent contributed to country house design as an artistic adviser, not as a contracted supervising architect responsible for project management. In modern parlance, Kent was more a decorator than builder, but such terms risk underestimating the depth of his involvement in redesigning the British country house.’ (p.184).

46 Francesco Trevisani Portrait of Thomas Coke 1717 Holkham Estate sm

Francesco Trevisani, Portrait of Thomas Coke, 1717. By kind permission of Viscount Coke and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate

Bryant sees Kent’s appeal to the owners of these country houses as his ability to resurrect for them in concrete form the memory of their experiences on the Grand Tour; so that, in building a Palladian villa, or recreating the interior of their houses in Roman Baroque style, they would be reviving echoes and reflections of their youth – as here, with Kent’s patron, Coke of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, portrayed as

‘…a cosmopolitan, most at home in the finest palazzi of Rome, Florence, and Naples…the kind of palatial setting he will seek to recreate… [at] Holkham…’

Bryant also reminds us that Norwich in the 18th century ‘was still Britain’s second city’: Kent’s country houses orbit around the twin suns of Oxford and Norwich.

X Alexandre Serebrikoff The Great Hall Ditchley watercolour1930sto40s

Alexandre Serebrikoff, The Great Hall, Ditchley Park, watercolour, 1930s-40s, showing Kent’s paintings of Venus and Aeneas in integral wall frames (c.1728-31), either side of the door. Ditchley Foundation 

Ditchley Park (1724-31) in Oxfordshire was one of the former, and one of the earlier locations with which Kent was involved; Bryant sees the metaphorical programme of decoration in the Great Hall as expressing the same dedication to youthful love and learning as indicated in Trevisani’s portrait of Thomas Coke:

‘The entrance hall at Ditchley was probably Kent’s first opportunity to design a whole room for a country house. Here he succeeded in demonstrating the potential of the new style, both visually and intellectually, to speak to visitors of classical education through an intellectual program of ornament that addressed both their taste and their minds.’

The arrangement of the room is striking: the elaborate integral wall frames holding Kent’s paintings of Venus & Aeneas on either side of the main door, and supporting in a softened form the grandeur of the doorcase; the focal point of the chimneypiece and overmantel painting; the smaller doorcase; the sculpted busts, figures, and framed plaster reliefs; and the white benches set against the walls. This complex ornamental scheme pivots on the fulcrum of the frame – door frames, wall frames, overmantel frame: the internal architecture marries the functional openings of door, window and chimney to the imaginative openings of the paintings into a classical and allegorical world.

2 An assembly at Wanstead House William Hogarth 1728to31 Philadelphia Museum of Art sm

William Hogarth, An assembly at Wanstead House, 1728-31, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

Another early commission was Wanstead House in Essex, first designed by Colen Campbell, and demolished a hundred years later. Hogarth’s painting of a Kentian interior there, although exaggerating the furniture and chimneypiece with satirical intent, does give some idea of the richness of Kent’s programmes for his decorative schemes, and of the magnificence of such a setting for a social occasion, in the spirit of those Roman palazzi. It also shows how such an interior functioned, as an extremely rich shell containing comparatively few free-standing items, which would be ‘furnished’ by the gathering within it.

X The Designs of Inigo Jones ... page 65

The Designs of Inigo Jones…, Publish’d by William Kent, vol. I, 1727, with one of Kent’s own designs on page 65

Wanstead was followed by Burlington’s Chiswick House, and Bryant remarks particularly on the chimneypieces here:

‘[Kent’s] growing interest in the potential of chimneypieces as the first coup d’oeil on entering a room, the focal point of warmth and light in British country houses, would have been informed in the 1720s by his work for Burlington in preparing for publication his Designs of Inigo Jones (1727). The first volume includes designs for chimneypieces by Jones, as well as five clearly signed “W. Kent inve.” ’ (p. 191)

55. Chiswick Blue Velvet Room. Photo Richard Bryant

William Kent, the Blue Velvet Room, Chiswick House, c.1727–38; English Heritage.Photo: Richard Bryant

X Wm Kent The Designs of Inigo Jones Portrait detail

The Designs of Inigo Jones…, Publish’d by William Kent, vol. I, 1727, portrait on the title page

Bryant sees Kent as having played a much greater part in the interior decoration of Chiswick than he is currently credited with; in the chimneypieces, in the frames of the overdoors, above, which are based on the engraved frame of Inigo Jones’s portrait for The Designs of Inigo Jones …, and in the hang of pictures at Chiswick:

‘Paintings were integral to the interior decoration at Chiswick. Row upon row of paintings in gilded frames, hanging in strict architectural symmetry, evoked the sheer magnificence and gravitas of the private collections of Rome, seen to this day at the Palazzo Colonna and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.’ (p.194)

X HOUGHTON HALL North wall Saloon sm

William Kent, Design for the north wall of the saloon, Houghton Hall, 1725. Private collection.

An even more carefully-arranged hang would characterize part of Kent’s vision for Houghton Hall, Norfolk (c.1725-35). This was not the reimagined Roman holiday of a young aristocrat, but the social and political setting for a middle-aged politician (Sir Robert Walpole) who – rather than inheriting – was in the process of acquiring his own major art collection. Kent’s designs for two walls of the saloon epitomize the view he had arrived at by the later 1720s, of the interior as the inner shell of a room. This shell would include the programme of paintings on the ceiling and its cove; the interior architecture of cornice, frieze, door- and window-cases, chimneypiece and overmantel; the arrangement of paintings on the walls, with their frames and echoing ornaments; and the furniture which stood against the walls, such as console tables. The overmantel and doorcases on the north wall (above) form a compositional triangle, highlighted by their more important features (such as pediments), and by their ornament; this is filled in by paintings in secondary frames, and then expanded upwards to the largest works, in simple egg-&-dart mouldings, and onwards to the ceiling cornice. The decorations and motifs throughout echo and reinforce each other, and the frames are bound together by their principal mouldings, and their increasing enrichment. Kent’s drawings for both north and south walls of the saloon are unexpectedly small in the flesh, but they convey in miniature a wealth of decorative and cohesive meaning.


William Kent, Stowe House, Buckinghamshire: Elevation and Section of Chimney Piece in the Hall, ca. 1733, with bar scale of 1/2 inch to 1 foot. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This is made explicit in Kent’s drawing for the chimneypiece of the north hall at Stowe, where the two tiers of the fireplace and overmantel mirror each other, even to the triangular pediment. It was designed to hold Christophe Veyrier’s The Family of Darius before Alexander, a bas-relief, and this subject of military might and mercy is emphasized by the ornament – a helmet at the crest, a torus of bay leaves in the entablature, and swags of oak leaves on the frieze of the fireplace. The frame of the bas-relief is supported by Mannerist scrolls; the whole structure has moved on appreciably from Inigo Jones’s chimneypiece for Somerset House.

44 William Kent The Library Holkham Hall c1734to41 Holkham Estate sm

William Kent, The Library, Holkham Hall, c.1734-41. By kind permission of Viscount Coke and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate

In some ways the great surviving Kentian house is Holkham Hall (c.1729-64), although Bryant points out that it was the work, not only of Kent, but of Colen Campbell, Coke himself, Lord Burlington, and Matthew Brettingham (who attempted to steal much of Kent’s credit for himself). Here, the library reveals how architectural furnishings (such as integral framed panels, chimneypieces and bookcases) could organize the composition of an interior in the same way that wings, varying roof levels, bays and set-back walls, windows and areas of rustication, could organize the exterior.

The library overmantel is particularly opulent; Kent’s painting of Apollo was rejected, and it houses an antique Roman mosaic of a lion. The double guilloche border of the mosaic is absorbed into the ornamental parade of the parcel-gilded and painted overmantel frame: a striking band of centred Vitruvian scroll, pendants of leaves, drops of bellflowers, and a frieze of undulating foliation, all beneath Mannerist volute capitals with a gilt scale pattern, and a crest with a cartouche, shells and foliation. Bryant quotes Horace Walpole on Kent:

‘…“his chimney-pieces, though lighter than those of Inigo, whom he imitated, are frequently heavy; and his constant introduction of pediments and the members of architecture over doors, and within rooms, was disproportioned and cumbrous…” ’

…and you can see what Walpole meant; however, time and custom have got our eye in, and perhaps we can better appreciate the part of the chimneypiece as the “coup d’oeil” within the integrated Kentian interior. Bryant does note that,

‘None of the chimneypieces, overmantels, architraves, furniture, and picture frames [at Holkham] can be attributed with certainty to Kent as designer’,

and that Thomas Coke and John Vardy may be responsible; but if so, then the guiding spirit is still unarguably that of Kent.

At Rousham House, the work is all Kent’s own, and there we see something even Walpole would not have disdained as heavy: an adventurous jeu d’esprit of an overmantel frame from which all the cumbrous weight of pilasters and modillions has been trimmed away, leaving a single decorative moulding between the swan’s neck pediment and female mask at the top, and the pedestal with Vitruvian scroll at the bottom. The sides are supported by cavorting dolphins, and the whole is playful and decorative to a degree. Kent painted this interior white, which would have added to the light and festival air of the whole.


Attributed to William Kent, looking-glass, probably for the White House, Kew, 1733–34. Carving attributed to John Boson, with later additions to the base. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, W.86-1911.

As well as commissions from private citizens, Kent was also employed by the King and by his son, Frederick, Prince of Wales (Chapter 11: Royal Commissions; Steven Brindle). Kent designed the Royal Barge for the prince, and also a home for his court – the White House at Kew (demolished in 1802) – from which various pieces of furniture survive, including a looking-glass frame (above). The art of the looking-glass frame is appreciably different from that of a picture frame: if rectangular it is narrower and more upright in structure, but can frequently be oval or round; it can be even richer than a picture frame; it functions as an ornamental unit of an interior scheme when it is not being used functionally, as it were; and the whole vocabulary and decorative emphasis is therefore cast in a higher key. This particular example displays an example of imaginative elaboration on the tête espagnolette (a carved female head with a crown of feathers). The mask is male – possibly a green man, as he is bearded, and the whole confection is created mainly from palm leaves and acanthus – also the feathers have been replaced by the Prince of Wales’s three plumes within a crown. These are backed by two immense scallop shells, textured, fluted and striated. It’s a virtuoso piece of carving, very three-dimensional in character, and attests the skill of the carvers Kent was using.

In this case the carver was probably John Boson, who just at this point (1734) was leasing a building (home or workshop, or both) from Lord Burlington, in Savile Row,  which runs north from the north-east corner of Burlington House (now the Royal Academy), Piccadilly; this puts him right at the heart of the Kent-Burlington nexus in London. The same year (or the next) he would provide two more looking-glasses for Burlington’s Chiswick House (for these and more details on Boson, see the Directory of British picture framemakers on the NPG website). Steven Brindle matches a bill from Boson to the Prince of Wales to the looking-glass illustrated here, and its companion but lost console table:

‘“A Rich Tabernacle the Moldings & flatt Carv’d feathers to freise & festoons to sides Shell to pedement & Large Ornaments wth Shell and foliage &c to Bottom….To A table under Do in Drawing Room wth Lyons head festoons of Oak Supporting Scrowls and Other Ornamts 8.0.0.” ’

Royal Barge cartouche ed sm

William Kent, Royal Barge, 1731-32, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer: Bruce White

The looking-glass is one of few survivors of Kent’s work for the Prince of Wales, the most notable of which is the Royal Barge; Chapter Twelve is given over to this extraordinary commission. Here, the carver was James Richards, Master Carver to the king in the wake of Grinling Gibbons, working to detailed drawings by Kent. Richards, like Boson, was employed both by Lord Burlington, and by the Prince of Wales at Kew House. His work on the Royal Barge cost more than £150, and the gilding (double gilding and painting), by the Huguenot carver and gilder Paul Petit, almost £260. It – like Boson’s looking-glass – is remarkable for its very plastic, three-dimensional carving. Viewed from above, its motifs and mouldings are constructed upon the form of the hull like an exploded, elliptical picture frame: the rail around the bow is a free-floating egg-&-dart moulding, ending in a tight volute.  Similarly, the arched openings to the cabin of the Barge are individually small aedicular picture frames, or en masse a single-tiered altarpiece. The vocabulary employed throughout the boat is impeccably Kentian, with a band of Vitruvian scroll (stylized waves), scallop shells, swags of oak leaves, dolphins and mermaids. The cartouche at the bow of the boat has much in common with Boson’s looking-glass – it is oval, with a crest composed of the Prince of Wales’s feathers and crown against a large scallop shell; the raffle leaves and green man are replaced by mermaids and dolphins. The drawings by Kent make the resemblance to a frame even clearer.

Royal Barge detail of bow rail

William Kent, Royal Barge, detail of bow rail, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer: Bruce White

Richards’s carving is adept and graceful; from the overall composition to the detail of the small dolphins at the base of the bow sculpture, the mermaids and the swags of oak leaves, the craftsmanship is admirable. Sadly Paul Petit’s work has been regilded, probably several times (for more details on Petit, see the Directory of British picture framemakers on the NPG website  ). Petit was himself an extremely skillful carver, executing several elaborate sculptural trophy frames for the Prince, who evidently employed the most skilled craftsmen in Britain to boost the claims of his own court in terms of aesthetics and splendour over that of his father, George II.

There are large swathes of this fascinating, vast and meticulously wide-ranging book which cannot be touched on in this review, since the field of Kent’s production was such a broad one. His influence on Palladian picture frames diffuses through many chapters, but will obviously not be found in those on landscape architecture, garden buildings, his royal and other patrons, and his book illustrations. John Harris’s chapter on Kent as ‘Architectural and Ornamental Draftsman’ (Ch. 6), his ‘Town Houses’ by David Watkin (Ch. 7), ‘Public Commissions’, Frank Salmon (Ch. 13), and, notably, ‘The Well of Inspiration: Sources for Kent’s Furniture Designs by Susan Weber (Ch.17), touch on the subject via interiors, chimneypieces and engravings (of, for instance, console tables and their matching frames).

18 Design for side table for Houghton Hall William Kent V & A sm

William Kent, design for side table for Houghton Hall, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Susan Weber also notes the influence of Baroque Roman flourishes such as putti and crowning masks on Kent’s work, both of which – especially the masks – are present in his frames, and in the pieces of furniture such as tables which accompany them. Kent’s collection of Italian prints, as well as the furnishings he encountered during his years in Italy, had a profound effect. The same motifs are used even in chandeliers, candlesticks and girandoles (‘Kent’s Metalwork Designs’, by Michael Snodin; Ch. 19), pointing the integrity of Kent’s all-embracing interior designs.

The final chapter (21: ‘The Legacy’, by Tim Knox) examines the pool of designs spreading out from the Kentian spring: the work of the men most closely associated with him, such as Henry Flitcroft and Isaac Ware, and John Vardy and Daniel Garrett. The diffusion of Kent’s designs through books of engravings was influential, and continued to be so until it faded into the NeoClassical age, as exemplified by the Adam brothers.

Palladian picture frames were, perhaps, particularly widespread as a style; there are so many of them about, in all their varying degrees of enrichment, from an architrave frame with a single run of ornament to the most luxurious and opulent version of the trophy frame. They marry well with architectural styles in Britain throughout the 17th and 18th centuries (whereas Rococo buildings never really caught on), fitting in with houses in late Renaissance and Baroque style, and later with those in the NeoClassical language of Adam and his school. Apart from the Kentian country houses mentioned specifically in the text, hangings of paintings in ‘Kent’ frames can be seen in the King’s Gallery, Kensington Palace, Room 9 of the National Portrait Gallery, where many of the Kit-cat Club portraits by Sir Godfrey Kneller are hanging in their Palladian frames by Gerrard Howard, the king’s framemaker, and in Tate Britain.

X Allan Ramsay Thomas 2nd Baron Mansel of Margam 1742 Tate ed sm

Allan Ramsay, Thomas, 2nd Baron Mansel of Margam, with his half-brothers and -sister, 1742, Tate; Photo: Fran Pickering 

One of the most striking frames in the collection of Tate Britain is this, on Ramsay’s group portrait of Thomas Mansel and his half-siblings. The mansion on the Margam estate in Glamorgan was demolished in 1787, amputating the portrait from its interior, but as a singular statement of the importance and beauty of the ‘Kent’ frame, it can hardly be beaten.

Look at all these frames, then, and buy or borrow the book; it’s definitely worthwhile reading for its multifarious approaches to the work of a figure so important in British architecture and design.


With grateful thanks to the V & A, and to all those who have kindly provided me with images to use, and/or permission to publish them, especially Charles, 8th Marquess Townshend and Fran Pickering.