William Kent – a pioneering garden designer with fresh and revolutionary ideas: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

Garden designers over the centuries have left a lasting legacy in their ideas and in the gardens they created. In this Morrab Miscellany, Julia writes about William Kent who used his talent and experience as an artist to revolutionise garden design 300 years ago.

For the letter K I’m writing in the blog about William Kent, the first of three C18th garden designers whose work resulted in unmistakable and lasting marks being made on the English landscape. After Kent will come Capability Brown (next Miscellany) and Humphrey Repton (15 September.)

William KENT (1685-1748) lays claim to a prominent place in garden design history because of the radical new landscape style he initiated, honed and celebrated.

A new style, but one formed by looking backwards to the era of Emperor Augustus, whose reign from 27 BC to 14 AD was a time when Rome witnessed a great flowering of the arts. Taste in garden design in those ancient Augustan times, according to poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was for ‘unadorned nature.’

All nature was a garden

This Augustan style underwent a revival in the mid years of the C18th and it was to Kent, who had lived as an artist in Italy for 10 years, that the aristocracy turned when seeking to transform their estates.

Of Kent’s pioneering activities writer Horace Walpole (1717-1797) says, ‘He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.’

Benefiting from the patronage of Lord Burlington, Kent’s fresh and revolutionary ideas about landscape were readily embraced by landowners keen to be seen as cultured and fashionable.

This intense focus on large-scale beautification projects was possible because of Britain’s wealth from its colonial and industrial expansion and its settled political situation through the almost 100 years’ reign of the King Georges from 1714.

Settings that are natural and informal

Kent began introducing settings that were natural and informal, resembling the romantic, dream-like Italian landscapes the landowners had seen for real – as well as on the canvases of French artists Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin – when travelling in Italy. They would have been there as part of the customary ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe’s ancient sites, a rite of passage for well-to-do young men of the time.

Kent brought his painterly eye and love of embellishment to the task of ‘perfecting’ nature. He excelled not just in landscape design but also architecture and interior decoration, his achievements still visible today in grand houses such as Stowe, Rousham, Chiswick and Claremont.

A view looking along the avenue at Rousham Park. This was the work of garden designers William Kent
“Walking Down the Avenue at Rousham Park”
by antonychammond is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Walpole describes Kent as ‘working on the great principles of perspective, light and shade.’ Intent on rejecting the controlled effect of straight-line formality, he was determined to replace it with groves of cypresses, and shape the land into ‘gentle swells or concave scoops.’

Adept at highlighting a scene’s beauty through the introduction of classical influences such as statuary, temples, amphitheatres and grottoes and loving the natural ‘serpentine’ shape of flowing water, Kent often included rills, a pond or a lake. Or a romantic bridge as at Kenwood.

Capability Brown learned his craft at Kent’s knee and later developed all these motifs on a larger scale

Contrast with an earlier ‘geometric style’

Should you be curious to see what a Georgian garden looked like before Kent’s radical vision began transforming the scene, ie one designed to conform to the measured geometric style of the earlier 1700s, then take yourself to number 4, the King’s Circus in the city of Bath.

One of architect John Wood II’s grand townhouses, number 4 is a home which novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) along with her mother and sister Cassandra, is known to have visited several times during the early 1800s while the family were living around the corner in Gay Street.

A view of the Georgian Garden at the rear of Number 4 King's Circus, Bath
The Georgian Garden at Number 4 King’s Circus, Bath.
Photo: www.bathnewseum.com/

Thanks to the Bath Preservation Trust, in 1985 the garden behind the house was restored to its state as in 1766.

The garden is rectangular, climbers and fruit trees trained against its walls, its layout formal with narrow beds enclosed by low box hedges between rolled gravel paths, circular central beds, and a seat at the far end below a trellis of honeysuckle. The clipped topiary is of box, yew and holly.

All the plants you’ll see would have been available in C18th, some of them undoubtedly novel specimens brought into Britain from the tropics thanks to intrepid explorers.

The garden is illustrated in the excellent blog by Susan Fullerton Jane Austen and her Gardens on the website Garden Drum.

The blog describes the affection Jane felt for the gardens she frequented. These include the cottage garden at Chawton in Hampshire, the house where Jane lived for the last eight years of her life.

Today the house is a museum dedicated to her memory: www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk


“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade”

Rudyard Kipling (1865 –1936), English journalist, poet and novelist, in 1907 became the first English language writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born in India, the subcontinent inspired works including The Jungle Book,  Kim, many short stories and the poem Mandalay. Critic Douglas Kerr states, ‘as the age of empires recedes, Kipling is recognised as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced [while] an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts makes him a literary force still to be reckoned with.’ A memorial to Kipling is to be found in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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