Figures on the stairs
The King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace is one of William Kent’s most beguiling creations. Lucy Worsley examines the details of this remarkable and unexpected portrait of the Hanoverian court. Photographs by Will Pryce.
In 1719, the artist William Kent returned to London after a decade’s training in Italy. Young and untried as he was, he was about to undertake a major royal commission. The work he completed at Kensington Palace in the 1720s would begin to prove the truth of a later judgement of his character: that he was ‘born with a genius’.
Kent was a jolly, gluttonous extrovert, ‘very hot, & very fat’. His friends teased him for his dictatorial manner about the best way to cook a steak; for entertaining himself ‘with syllabubs and damsels’; for being in love with malt liquor. Born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, ambition together with his knack of attracting rich patrons had combined to send him to study in Rome.
On his return to England, old friends from Italy formed part of his new London circle. These included his bosom buddy and patron, the intellectual Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington and fourth Earl of Cork (1695-1753).
Kent moved into Burlington’s grand Piccadilly home. Kent was given unique license to tease: in one of his sketches of the Earl, a dog urinates upon the aristocratic ankle. The odd couple nevertheless had many common interests, as Burlington was enormously enthusiastic about architecture and design.
As well as the support of the powerful Earl of Burlington, Kent also possessed both the genuine talent and immense self-confidence necessary to catapult him into court circles.
At the time of Kent’s return to London, the court was at war with itself. George I was in the middle of a tremendous and long-running quarrel with his son, the Prince of Wales. In 1717, a ridiculous row over who should stand as godfather to the Prince of Wales’s new-born baby had broken out between father and son.
This dispute was typical of the difficulties each of the first three Hanoverian kings would experience with their heirs. Invited by Parliament to rule Britain, rather than inheriting it through indisputable right of blood, this fresh and insecure dynasty was immensely vulnerable to intriguing politicians keen to divide and therefore to rule the new Royal Family.
The ‘christening quarrel’ of 1717 escalated horribly: George I had expelled his son and daughter-in-law from the royal palaces, and confiscated their children. The Prince and Princess of Wales, though, won widespread public pity. Also, being much more sociable than the king, they began to host their own separate and rather more sparkling court. It began to challenge the king’s itself for popularity.
So, in the 1720s, the irascible and shy George I needed to win back a good deal of lost popularity. In order to host more lavish and lively parties of his own, upon a grand new stage, he planned to refurbish the ramshackle Kensington Palace.
The rural royal retreat at Kensington was fashioned in the 1690s by William III and Mary II, who’d employed Christopher Wren to make extensive additions to a seventeenth-century villa. The finished palace was pleasant enough, and beautifully situated amid its gardens. But it had been built too quickly, with poor quality workmanship. By George I’s accession, it had been for some years ‘much crack’t and out of repair’.
It was on 19 June 1718, at the height of the quarrel with his son, that George I gave his ‘orders for erecting a new building at Kensington’. The accompanying plan, now at The National Archives, showed the proposed reconstruction of the palace’s chief chambers: the Privy Chamber, Cupola and Drawing Rooms. These were the main spaces through which the king’s potential party guests would pass. Soon the demolition of the seventeenth-century structure at the heart of the palace began, and the guts of the building were ripped out and replaced.
Early in 1722, quotations were sought for the decoration of the new Cupola Room, and Sir James Thornhill seemed certain to win the job. Thornhill was a successful, well-established, but slightly arrogant painter: understandably so, as his work at St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich had been such a success. On this occasion, though, he made the fatal error of over-charging for the job.
Outraged by Thornhill’s financial demands, members of the court suggested a new painter who might perform the job more cheaply. It was Kent’s big opportunity. He was invited to tender, and undercut Thornhill on price; Thornhill was ousted from the commission. Kent, with Burlington as his constant supporter, was clearly ‘sailing thro’ the ways of life well befriended’.
Kent’s painting won the king’s approval, and gradually he wormed his way deeper into royal favour. After the Cupola Room, he went on to decorate other rooms of the state apartments, performing sound but not brilliant work.
But Kent came at last into his inventive own in the final room he was commissioned to decorate at Kensington - the King’s Grand Staircase. This impressive construction led up to the state apartments, and was the route by which all the great and good of Georgian England were intended to reach the king’s presence. In July 1725, Kent was ‘so busy about the staircase’ at Kensington that he had no time for any other commissions.
He had made the remarkable decision to decorate it with portraits of individuals from the lower ranks of the royal household. They took their places within a magnificent architectural setting completed in oils upon canvas covering the staircase walls. This would become Kent’s undoubted masterpiece at Kensington, a unique mural masquerade based on real court characters.
The idea of painted people looking through painted windows wasn’t new. Most likely as the source of Kent’s inspiration was a grand reception room at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome, an influential design by Agostino Tassi (b. c. 1580, d. 1644) and Orazio Gentileschi (b. 1562, d. 1647). Peering down from between the columns of a fictive arcade were several Persian ambassadors dressed in turbans. Closer to home, Louis Laguerre’s saloon at Blenheim Palace had been completed only five years earlier. There, too, an exotically-dressed crowd of people looked between painted pillars down into the room below.
Kent’s innovation was to make the whole scene more realistic. His Kensington arcade is populated with genuine court servants, at a reasonable scale, in their normal clothes. His sitters were drawn from the lower ranks of the Royal Household, though in some cases this description belies their positions of intimacy with the king, and therefore of power. Lord Chesterfield understood that those below stairs wielded great power, and that a history of the court should concentrate on the servants as well as the great: 'there is, at all Courts, a chain, which connects the Prince, or the Minister, with the Page of the back-stairs, or the Chambermaid. The King’s Wife, or Mistress, has an influence over him; a Lover has an influence over her; the Chambermaid, or the Valet de Chambre, has an influence over both; and so ad infinitum'.
Kent’s staircase put this philosophy into painted form, and his use of recognisable people made the whole thing into an elaborate court joke. Of the forty-five sitters that Kent included, most are today unknown. But several identities can be deduced both from other portraits and from early documentary sources.
Kent himself is in a prominent position on the ceiling: pink-cheeked, cherubic, the focus of admiring attention, and ready to take on the British artistic establishment. He was at the start of a hugely successful career, and in his direct glance there is blended the confidence and complaisance of a new cock of the walk.
Article from Country Life, June 2, 2010
© 2013 Lucy Worsley