There are few names woven into the ancient tapestry of our island’s history with a richer thread than that of The House of Percy. Throughout the ages they have contributed to the rise and fall of monarchs, overseen vast areas of our landscape and acted as custodians to some of the world’s finest treasures. William de Percy (d.1096/9) arrived on these shores alongside William the Conqueror and accompanied him on his first venture to Scotland. The Percy name then appears in the Domesday Book as Lord of numerous manors in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and by the twelfth century the family owned Petworth House in West Sussex. Alnwick Castle, the family’s stronghold, has been in their possession for over seven hundred years, and Syon House, on the banks of the river Thames, was built upon lands acquired by the 9th Earl in 1594.
I hope the reader will appreciate it is impossible to chart the family’s history here, when entire volumes have been devoted to its early heroes: Sir Henry Percy, the Harry Hotspur of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, who died at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403; or the 6th Earl, whose betrothal to Anne Boleyn was cruelly dissolved by an envious King; or the ‘The Wizard’ Earl, the 9th, whose supposed involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 led to his imprisonment in the Tower of London, where among his friends was another inmate, Sir Walter Raleigh.
Better therefore to focus upon the principal paintings here offered and the members of the Percy family responsible for their acquisition, as well as the seats that housed them.
1ST DUKE & DUCHESS OF NORTHUMBERLAND
THE RESTORATION OF THE PERCY SEATS
Sir Hugh Smithson (1712 – 86), later Earl of Northumberland, was created 1st Duke of Northumberland (3rd Creation) in 1766. Wealthy in his own right, his fortune was further increased by his marriage to Elizabeth Seymour (1716 – 76), daughter of the 7th Duke of Somerset in 1740. Elizabeth was to inherit the Percy estates following the death of her brother George in 1744 and with Sir Hugh’s succession to the Earldom of Northumberland in 1750 he assumed by act of Parliament the Percy name. The beautiful Van Dyck portrait of Frances Devereux entered the Northumberland collection at this time via Sir Hugh’s marriage to Elizabeth.
The Earl and Countess embarked upon an ambitious programme of restoration of all the principal Percy seats including Alnwick Castle, then derelict, and Northumberland House on the Strand in London and Syon House, at that time the family’s rural retreat in Middlesex. To achieve this they employed, among others, the Scottish architect Robert Adam and, for the improvement of the grounds, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Adam began work at Syon in 1760. He drew up designs for five of the principal rooms and in doing so created one of his greatest neo-classical masterpieces.
2ND DUKE OF NORTHUMBERLAND
ARMY OFFICER & POLITICIAN
Hugh Percy (1742 – 1817), the 2nd Duke, was born in the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square, London, on 14 August 1742. He was educated at Eton College and St John’s College, Cambridge, acceding to the title on his father’s death in 1786. From an early age he was clearly determined upon his path in life and was gazetted ensign in the 24th Regiment of Foot just before his seventeenth birthday. He served in the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763), duly rising to the rank of major-general in the American War of Independence in which he commanded the relief force at Lexington. During his travels in America, shortly after arriving at the port of Boston, he wrote the following passage comparing the Massachusetts countryside to Capability Brown’s parkland at Alnwick:
‘It has everywhere the appearance of a park finely laid out. Mr Brown would be useless. Nature has in this part of the world taken upon herself his employment and dressed the ground in a manner no one can ever equal.’
His illegitimate half-brother, James Smithson, also had strong ties to the American people and left his fortune to ‘The United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institute, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.’
In 1786 the 2nd Duke commissioned three paintings from the American artist, Gilbert Stuart, and these have hung at Syon until this day. The paintings depict the Duke, his family and also a Mohawk war chieftain called Thayendanegea or, by his English name, Joseph Brant (1743 – 1807). Brant was an extraordinary individual and a cogent description of his achievements follows on the lot pages of this catalogue. Although admired by many of his English compatriots with whom he fought, his closest, and indeed only, enduring friendship with a white man was with Hugh Percy. The Royal Museum in Ontario has in its collection a pair of flintlock pistols inlaid with silver escutcheons engraved with the letter N surmounted by ducal crowns. Extraordinarily, and touchingly, these were a gift from an English Duke to a Mohawk chieftain. They are engraved with the curious word ‘GUINEAS’, the personal meaning of which both men took to the grave.
4TH DUKE OF NORTHUMBERLAND (1792–1865)
LANDOWNER, PHILANTHROPIST AND RENAISSANCE MAN
Lord Algernon Percy (1792–1865) was born at Syon House in 1792 but did not become the 4th Duke of Northumberland until relatively late in life at the age of 55. He had served as a naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars, being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1852.
In 1856 he purchased the Camuccini Collection, one of the last great acquisitions made by an Englishman travelling to Rome. The collection was formed by two brothers, Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844), a celebrated neo-classical painter, and Pietro Camuccini (1760-1833), a prominent picture dealer and restorer. It consisted of seventy-four pictures of which The Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni da Rimini and The Garden of Eden by Jan Breughel the Elder are two of the finest. The collection was purchased in order to furnish appropriately the newly remodelled suite of apartments at Alnwick Castle, which, in reflection of the Duke’s love of Cinquecento Italian art, had recently been refurnished in the Italian Renaissance Revival style by Luigi Canina, Director of the Museo Capitolino in Rome. The interior, which was continued after 1856 by Giovanni Montiroli, remains the most notable statement of neo-Renaissance taste in Britain, and cost over a quarter of a million pounds.
These outstanding works are indicative of the overall quality of the Camuccini Collection, which also included paintings by Bellini and Claude. The Garden of Eden is one of only a few recorded paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder depicting this subject that remains in private hands. The Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni da Rimini in particular exemplifies the extraordinary opportunity that was afforded to the 4th Duke in being able to acquire the collection. The panel, executed on a gold ground, is in near perfect condition and may be considered the perfect description of that key moment when western art moves from the linear, archaic Byzantine tradition to one based on naturalistic, emotive and perspectival innovations that together would herald the birth of the Renaissance.
This sale affords an opportunity not unlike that which was presented to the 4th Duke on his visit to Rome over 150 years ago. Its dispersal provides a rare chance to acquire works from one of England’s oldest and noblest collections, works whose historical depth and artistic importance are only further enhanced by their momentous lineage.
ALNWICK CASTLE, NORTHUMBERLAND
The origins of Alnwick Castle date back to Norman times when it lay within the overlap of the feudal powers of the English and Scottish kings. This garrison castle came into the ownership of the Percy family in 1309 and, for the following 200 years, improvements were made to its fortifications to withstand Scottish raids and numerous sieges. By the end of the 17th century, the castle was in a state of disrepair and its importance lay as the administrative centre of the extensive northern Percy estates.
Transformation of the castle into a habitable gothick style palace came about in the mid-18th century through a series of architects, including Daniel Garrett, James Paine and Robert Adam, under the aegis of the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Under the 4th Duke, in the mid-19th century, the ‘frivolous gothick’ was replaced by Anthony Salvin’s work, his ‘castle style’ considered to be more appropriate. The form of the State Room interiors, however, followed that of 16th century Roman palaces in their lavish, vibrant Renaissance design. It was for the specific purpose of adorning the rich silk wall hangings that the 4th Duke acquired the Camuccini gallery of paintings in Rome in 1856.
Today Alnwick Castle continues to be the principal home of the Percy family, over 700 years after its acquisition.
SYON HOUSE, MIDDLESEX
Syon House stands on the site of a great medieval abbey that had accommodated Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII, before her execution in 1542, as well as the body of the king himself when his coffin lay there for the night on its way from Westminster to Windsor. Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, started the construction of the present house in 1547. It was at Syon in 1553 that Lady Jane Grey, the nine day queen, was offered the English crown and where Queen Elizabeth I stayed on at least four occasions. Following the Queen’s death in 1603, the 9th Earl of Northumberland’s support of her successor, King James I, brought him even greater influence and wealth and he was gifted the freehold of the Syon estate the following year, having been the leaseholder since 1594.
By the mid-19th century, the house and park required improvement. The 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland employed Robert Adam to remodel the interior and Lancelot, Capability Brown to refashion the grounds. Enhanced further by the 3rd Duke and Duchess in the early 19th century, Syon House and park remains largely as it was then. It is
a remarkable survival of a privately owned rural estate close to the centre of London.