Sunday 23 March 2014

William Kent exhibition at the V&A

The Gallery, Chiswick House, William Henry Hunt, 1828, watercolour. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
Picture: V&A, (C) Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain Victoria and Albert Museum to July 13

William Kent was the go-to architect and designer in early Georgian England. He was fortunate to be working at a time when a lot of grand country houses were being built; Robert Adam had to content himself with renovations and interior decoration, whereas Kent was given a relatively free hand by wealthy and enlightened patrons. We are fortunate that several of the best houses he worked on have survived more-or-less intact, including Holkham Hall, which is a grand mansion in Norfolk, and Chiswick House, which is an exquisite villa in a London suburb. Kent was influenced by Italy, and especially by Palladio, but his style is quite distinctive and unlike Palladio he designed the furniture and interiors as well as the buildings.

There are some fine things in this show. I enjoyed seeing the originals of some of the famous interior drawings, including Houghton Hall with the original picture hang and the nineteenth century watercolours of Chiswick (above). There's some great furniture too. I love the owl motif on the desk and mirror from Chiswick. But the exhibition is overall a failure. Partly that's because it's hard to curate an exhibition about architecture, and partly it's because the curation is just bad. 

Handel is played in the background, the ultimate cliché of Georgian England. It might be merely thoughtless and unimaginative, but I suspect it's trying to engage an audience with something familiar. That's even worse, because it shies away from anything challenging in favour of a tedious Merchant Ivory country house ethos. I hate music in exhibitions because it imposes a mood, forcing us to experience it exactly as the curatorial apparatchiks want to make us experience it. It imposes emotion and closes down meaning.

Cheap looking backdrops hang behind the exhibits, and looped films of country house interiors play alongside original works of art. Lest you're tempted to dally, some of the more intricate drawings are hung behind four foot deep stands. The wall text is minimalist and you have to snake along a narrow corridor, making it difficult to linger or to go back for a second look. It's more like watching television rather than reading a book. A book might make an argument, but you can choose how you engage with it, reading at your own pace and pausing to consider. A documentary imposes a pace. It is totalising; sound and vision are used to tell a story, which we must passively consume. 

The display is as bad as it could be, but there are inherent difficulties in mounting this show. Kent wasn't a great draughtsman or painter. Some of the furniture is good, but can be seen better in situ. Rather than seeing new connections in the exhibition, it just seemed marooned and out of context. Some of the best pieces are usually displayed at Burlington House, just a few miles from the V&A, in the interiors for which they were designed. Sadly a lot of the furniture designed for Chiswick, including some in the exhibition, is now at Chatsworth House. It would be nice if they'd put it on permanent loan to Chiswick; they do have an awful lot of good furniture at Chatsworth. But it looks better even at Chatsworth than in this show. 

The disappointment is greater because the catalogue is so magnificent, a great doorstopper of a book and a brilliant work of scholarship. Do go along to the V&A to buy a discounted copy (still £45, but worth it). Skip the exhibition and look at the Renaissance sculpture instead. The tenner you save will offset the cost of the catalogue.


  1. Oh dear! May not bother with this one then, especially because I don't have quite as thorough a background in architecture as you do.

    Isn't it funny how we've recently seen a bit of an imbalance between exhibitions and the accompanying catalogues? For example, here: exhibition = not good and catalogue = good. Or with Daumier at the RA: exhibition = rather good, while catalogue = poor. In the case of Veronese, both appear to be good but the book gets minus points for not actually being a catalogue at all, but more of a monograph which just happens to have been published at the same time.

    1. Yes, agreed. The Veronese catalogue just isn't worthy of the exhibition, in my view. Incidentally I loved the chiaroscuro woodcuts now on at the RA, but again the catalogue is just pictures plus wall text, with a couple of very short essays. How ironic that their director has been extolling the virtues of exhibitions for fostering scholarship!

  2. Music in exhibitions: 'It imposes emotion and closes down meaning'. Discuss....
    There is an essay/blog post in just that one sentence.

    I've just written in a review that an experimental 'soundscape' can add atmosphere to an exhibition. I think, as ever, the answer is, 'it depends'! The Handel just sounds stodgy, whereas spacey music in an exhib about the baroque planetary festivals was more appropriate.

    I'm so linking to your blog from mine. Thanks for your honest style.

    1. Thank you - yes, you're quite right, and I'd like to write that blog post some day. I think some exhibitions are intended to be complete 'experiences', in which case I agree a soundtrack can work. But it's a difficult balance between the exhibition itself as a work of art versus respecting the works in the exhibition. I think it would be completely wrong to impose a soundtrack on an exhibition of recognised masterpieces that cannot be seen in two places at once; a degree of curatorial modesty is called for. But I can see its role in contemporary exhibitions, or exhibitions of less canonical art, or exhibitions where the objects might be less important in themselves but are on display to tell a story.

    2. Incidentally, one case where I thought music worked extremely well was at the British Museum's "Treasures of Heaven" exhibition a couple of years ago. It's so tempting nowadays to look at reliquaries merely as objects, but the choral music used in the exhibition was an effective way of reminding us of their religious function and significance.