William Kent was great without gravitas, the con man who eventually turned into a genius. He was a high camp Yorkshire bachelor, brought back by Lord Burlington from an artistic apprenticeship in Rome where he had painted for a cardinal and won prizes from a pope. In London he charmed the surly old Hanoverian King George I, redecorated Kensington Palace for him with a clumsy bravura, and survived the subsequent critical storm – just. England was in stylistic chaos after rejecting its lawful Stuart rulers and Burlington was imposing a chaste and dreary Palladianism on a philistine island people. Kent saw his chance and never looked back.
Queen Caroline, the real ruler, used him to project in sensational garden buildings by the Thames at Richmond her vision of a new scientific Britain. Sir Robert Walpole paid him to turn Houghton Hall in Norfolk into an imperial palace outshining anything the German monarchs could raise. Another prime minister, the virtuous Henry Pelham, built with Kent a revolutionary suburban bolt-hole in Surrey. Between them they invented the Gothic Revival out at Esher, but have never been given the credit.
Late in life, while raising an alabaster temple to Jupiter at Holkham Hall, also in Norfolk, and the sexiest interiors in London on Berkeley Square, Kent was discovering his true genius, laying out casually at Esher, Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Rousham near Oxford, the Arcadian image of the ‘English Garden’ that would take the continent, even France, by storm as England’s only original contribution to European culture.