William Kent, Inventor of the Gothic Revival at Esher

Portrait of William Kent by William Aikman

William Kent is perhaps best remembered for his contribution to Neo-Palladian architecture, but he was also the originator of the Gothic Revival and the founder of romantic naturalistic landscape gardening in England. Kent led a revolution that saw architecture, interior design and the English landscape transformed and it started in Esher.

In 1730, Henry Pelham purchased the Palace of Esher and engaged William Kent, the King’s architect, to make considerable alterations to both the house and the park, thus creating a property of magnificence that reflected not only his aesthetic taste, but also his political power and status. Like most Whig landowners, Pelham prided himself on being a country gentleman and was concerned about his rural seat. He therefore took a keen interest in the architectural style and in shaping the landscape according to his philosophical view of the universe.

The palace that Kent contrived for Pelham was based around the nucleus of Wayneflete’s towering gatehouse, thereby establishing the long connection of the site with English history, whilst at the same time maintaining an important status symbol. Just before the Esher commission Kent was engaged to rebuild the east range of Clock Court at Hampton Court Palace for George II, which he originally proposed in the classical style. However, he was prevailed upon by Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister at the time to work in harmony with the existing building works. This he achieved and if it were not for the 1732 inscribed stone caborchon one would not realize its 18th century date.

A drawing of Hampton Court Palace and Esher by William Kent

Kent’s proposal for an English castle with Italian refinements perfectly balanced contemporary taste, for it not only recognised the Kingdom’s history, but also acknowledged the far off ancient world. It thus declared a joint celebration of England’s native past and republican Rome, which had secured the liberty of Europe. These sentiments were especially apt with reference to Pelham’s ancestry and increasing political position and no doubt Kent enjoyed the freedom from restraint and tyranny of rule that the Gothic style afforded him. Pelham clearly wished to reminisce over the country’s heroic past but was also influenced by the discoveries of the ancient world and accordingly he allowed Kent to acknowledge classical antiquity throughout its interior, as well as by way of the statues and buildings that adorned his Esher landscape. Kent’s unique runaway style pioneered England through the 18th century and it commenced with his Esher masterpiece.

Kent followed the existing lines of the turrets and, with the addition of a screen, created the perimeter foundation line for the entire design which for the first time returned away from the river on the landward side. The flowing canted bays of varying widths cleverly provided four octagonal rooms. The most contradictory element of his design is its strict symmetry that serves to highlight his love of classical architectureKent used his most favoured Gothick elements at Esher – quatrefoils, castellated parapets, ogee cupolas, Venetian windows and ogee heads to windows and doors. By adding the curvaceous lead cupolas, he crowned the palace, accentuated its turrets and successfully created an overall air of gracefulness that transformed a very masculine structure into an elegant one. Kent’s decorative Gothick is rather glamorously inspired and evokes reflections of a romantic past. His treatment of the interior decoration was also lavish and fine examples of this ornamentation remain. The Tower’s embellishments highlight his eclecticism, as the Greek-key motif, acanthus leaves, shells, ogee arches and fan-vaulting are married together in perfect harmony.  Kent’s talent, expertise and versatility are undeniable and he justly received great acclaim for his work at Esher.

Oil on canvas of Pelham’s Esher Palace with elegant figures on the Riverbank, attributed to Joseph Nicholls

No doubt Kent would have consciously designed and fully intended that the natural landscape, of which there was now no demarcation as it came up to the house, should be fully visible and appreciated; it is not surprising that so many windows were included for maximum effect and appreciation. Kent swept away the mathematically planned grounds and kept the area immediately around the house simple to ensure that nothing obstructed the view of his carefully planned landscape as the lawns of the park adjoined the walls of the house.  The landscape was adorned with strategically positioned buildings to delight the aesthetic senses, create dramatic and romantic effect and simultaneously stimulate a nostalgic respect for antiquities of both the Gothic and Classical eras. 

According to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in reference to Kent, the 18th century landscape garden is “the most influential of all innovations in art.”   

Horace Walpole declared of Kent’s work that: “The King’s Bench at Westminster and Mr. Pelham’s house at Esher are proof of how little he conceived of either the principles or graces of Gothic architecture.” When put in context with Walpole’s later self-indulgent frivolity at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, which he referred to as his “Gothic Little Castle” this opinion could fairly be regarded as “the pot calling the kettle black”. Although Walpole was renowned for his inconsistencies and contradictions. Kent was sympathetic to medieval architecture, but recognised that this robust and masculine structure would not readily accommodate contemporary comfort, nor would it enable clear visibility and appreciation of the contrived surrounding naturalistic landscape. Kent ingeniously created a magnificent country mansion that incorporated references to past times and allowed for residents and visitors alike to reflect and reminisce, as was the order of the day. Kent took the concept of Gothic, which had certainly been inspired through literary awareness, and created his own runaway style.

It must be remembered that Kent was not only influenced by English Gothic, but by Italian Gothic and in particular, Venetian, and his fluid, light, almost feminine interpretation suggests a strong Italian influence. Conversely, English Gothic was very foreboding; Vanbrugh, for example, built on Blackheath “something of the Castle Air because it would make a Masculine Show.” Kent’s vision and ability to redress the gatehouse so elegantly demonstrates his imaginative flair and architectural genius. His creations are a striking contrast and must be acknowledged as fresh and awe-inspiring. It is worth noting that in 1713, Christopher Wren, when reporting on the Towers of Westminster Abbey, which were then not completed, stated “I have made a design … in the Gothic form … such as I conceive may agree with the original scheme of the old Architect, without any modern mixtures to show my own inventions.” Walpole was wrong to suggest that Kent understood so little; Kent’s designs are consciously original and far from pretentious. He delighted in a playful reinterpretation of a romantic past. His designs were not intended to emulate but to surpass all others – presumably the ambition and goal to which all young architects aspire. Furthermore, his design strategy demonstrates how well he gauged the mood and taste of the country and his personal success is testament to this fact.

All aspects of life and our surroundings evolve; architecture is no exception. It would have been far easier for Kent to have unimaginatively reproduced earlier architecture as Wren had acknowledged, but he gained renown because he fully appreciated and understood the Georgian Age of Elegance and created an appropriate ensemble. Without wishing to labour the point, if the ghost of King Alfred had travelled through time to the 18th century he would have been surprised and possibly even dismayed to see the male populace experimenting with their feminine side dressed in wigs, silk stockings, high heeled shoes, lace frilly collars and cuffs with complementary powered faces. Indeed, he could have been forgiven for considering their appearance to be that of men in drag, but the style of this period was particularly feminine and elaborate. The phrase “horses for courses” certainly seems relevant with reference to Kent’s solution. His easy merger of Gothic and Classical architectural elements was simply the best recipe of the time and should be regarded as pioneering England through the 1700s. Not surprisingly by 1748, Horace Walpole had a change of heart about the building and wrote to George Montagu:

Esher I have seen again twice, and prefer it to all villas.”