LONDONAs a number of carefully selected works from the historic collections of the Dukes of Northumberland are offered for sale at Sotheby’s this year, Clive Aslet explores the position of the family in the political and artistic history of Great Britain.

northumberland-hugh-percyHugh Percy (formerly Smithson), the 1st Duke
of Northumberland. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Think of Britain and you think of country houses: They are a national glory. Foreign visitors can be astounded to discover how many are still occupied by their traditional families, surrounded by contents that have been acquired over generations. 

While elsewhere in Europe, historic artefacts have been dispersed by war or revolution, the last successful invasion of England by a foreign army took place in 1066. One of the families who came over at that time took their name from Perci in France. The Percys rose to become Dukes of Northumberland. Their story, often bloody, shot through with vivid characters such as the Wizard Earl, the Proud Duke and Shakespeare’s Harry Hotspur, is intimately related to the national story. Relied upon to fight the Scots, they also contended against other powerful magnates in the high stakes game of court politics, sometimes with dire results. Their dazzling country houses, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (pictured on the cover) and Syon House (previous pages), which has survived, by a miracle, on the edge of London at Twickenham, could stand as symbols of Britain.

Those houses demonstrate the continuity of British history through a spectacular richness of decorative objects and works of art. These collections, acquired at different periods of the family’s existence and reflecting the tastes of its principal members, are truly ducal, comparable only to the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth and the three great houses owned by the Northumberlands’ old rivals on the other side of the Border, the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensbury. 

There are not many more than 30 Dukes in Britain. The title derives – appropriately for the warrior Percys – from dux, meaning leader. Historically, Dukes presided over immense territories. Although most of these estates have withered over time, the Duke of Northumberland remains strongly identified with the county from which his title is taken. 

Alas, nemesis eyed the Hamiltons, as it has many other ducal families.

With the land that the aristocracy owned came power and prestige, and – at times of agricultural prosperity – a secure income from the tenants. Often, the Dukes found that their holdings provided the opportunity to benefit from the Industrial Revolution and to withstand the long agricultural depression of the late 19th and 20th centuries. They built canals, quarried iron ore, developed docks and built cities. The income could be huge. “Never was there such a magnifico as the 10th Duke of Hamilton,” wrote a contemporary, while his son, the 11th Duke, was so proud he was described as “Very Duke of Very Duke.” 

Alas, nemesis eyed the Hamiltons, as it has many other ducal families. In the 1880s, the 12th Duke of Hamilton was forced to hold a seventeen-day sale of the treasures from the aptly named Hamilton Palace; by 1919, the coal mines surrounding Hamilton – the source of the family’s once fabulous wealth – had not only blackened the landscape, but caused the ground beneath the Palace to subside. Another great sale took place and the house was demolished. “England’s poorest duke after our richest heiress” screamed the headline of the American paper, when the 9th Duke of Manchester attempted to repair his fortunes by marrying the heiress May Goelet (she later married the Duke of Roxburghe). It was ever thus. Disaster has often descended on improvident Dukes. Cannons, the great house built by the 1st Duke of Chandos, in Middlesex, between 1713 and 1724, lasted a mere 23 years before being demolished in 1747 after heavy losses in the South Sea Bubble. The astute Percys weathered even the economic storms of the 20th century, when war, taxation and rising fuel prices forced many country-house owners to move out. Now, the splendour of the collections at Alnwick and Syon shine all the more brightly because stars to rival them are few.

875L14303_XXXXXAn Italian pewter inlaid rosewood, ebony
and pietre dure mounted cabinet, 17th century,
on an English stand by Morel and Hughes,
George IV, circa 1827, mounted with 17th century
Florentine pietre dura plaques. Estimate
£250,000–400,000. To be offered in the
Treasures sale at Sotheby's London on 9 July.

The Northumberland collection is breathtaking in its range. It is not only the Old Masters or family portraits, the marble sculptures brought back from the Grand Tour or created in the 19th century, that beguile the eye. Everywhere you look there is richness – handsome bronzes, sumptuous gold plate, precious books, rare manuscripts, witty bibelots, ingenious clocks, pretty snuffboxes, exquisite ivories, intriguing minerals and decorative shells. Among the riches of the furniture are two cabinets made for Louis XIV, part of the haul made by British buyers in the decades after the French Revolution. Great ducal collections reflect their family’s history and alliances: the Northumberland collections are a distillation of the contents of no fewer than five houses, including the great town palace of Northumberland House, near what is now Trafalgar Square (its name is remembered in Northumberland Avenue).

In the choice of objects, as well as the decoration of Alnwick and Syon, we can perceive different personalities at work. The “unusually handsome” 1st Duke, who married the Percy heiress, was Robert Adam’s patron; although the Duke famously had an illegitimate son (James Smithson would leave the fortune that founded the Smithsonian Institution), he was, in a loosely aristocratic way, devoted to his Duchess, as she was to him – although she also spent much time in Europe. At Syon, Adam produced a series of spectacular neo-Classical spaces within an existing shell; at Alnwick, inspired by the Duchess’s admiration for Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Adam turned the old castle into a luxurious Gothic residence. From the 1st Duke comes the Kent commode, part of an array of property from the ducal collections in a selection of sales this year, as well as the Northumberland Aphrodite, a beautiful Roman marble from the Great Hall at Syon, that is also offered.

Adam’s toy castle gave way to the present, more magnificent and more romantic house, created by the 4th Duke and the architect Anthony Salvin. With no children, he and his wife could indulge their taste for grand Italianate interiors, designed by the architect and archaeologist Luigi Canina, without qualm. Of a “playful disposition” when young, the 4th Duke came to be known, in political circles, as the Doge, a testament to his seriousness. He built churches and vicarages, experimented in agriculture, supported archaeology in Egypt and bought the Camuccini collection of largely High Renaissance and Baroque paintings – both the Giovanni da Rimini panel and Jan Breughel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden with the Temptation of Adam and Eve, now being offered for sale, come from the Camuccini collection.

When the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition burst upon Washington, DC in 1985, displaying a selection of the most glamorous art and artefacts to be found in the British country house, the eight pieces lent from Alnwick and Syon gave a flavour of the variety to be found in them. As well as masterpieces by Palma Vecchio, Guido Reni and Sir Edwin Landseer, there was a Georgian silver tea kettle on a tripod stand; Meissen tureens and plates from the Northumberland service, painted with flowers and animals; James Ward’s painting of Copenhagen; the Duke of Wellington’s charger; and a bird’s eye view of Syon House, showing the house as it was built for the 9th or so-called Wizard Earl (he had an interest in alchemy) in the 17th century. The alchemical manuscript that is being sold by Sotheby’s in July does not descend from the Wizard Earl, however, but was bequeathed to the 2nd Duke by General Charles Rainsford, who belonged to masonic and Rosicrucian circles. A friend of the Percys, he and the Percys had helped each other to obtain seats in Parliament.

northumberland-940The Great Hall at Syon House including a Marble Statue of Aphrodite, Roman Imperial, reign of Claudius, AD 41–54, far left. Estimate £4,000,000–6,000,000. To be offered in the Treasures sale at Sotheby's London on 9 July.

The array of objects offered in sales throughout this year reflects the breadth of these spectacular collections. Items include a letter from Queen Elizabeth to Lord Hertford ordering him to move Mary Queen of Scots, a copy of the first book printed in the English language, a Dresden figurine, sumptuous cabinets and Limoges enamels. Historically, one of the most compelling objects is the portrait of an American Indian chief, known in Europe as Joseph Brant, commissioned by the 2nd Duke. It is an image that still searches the conscience of the culture from which it originated, so confident is it in its own self-worth.

These pieces, whose sale is needed to invest in Alnwick and Syon after a heavy call on the estate’s resources to meet flood damage, have been chosen so as not to diminish the collections at Alnwick and Syon. Indeed, it is a testament to the houses’ extraordinary calibre that most of us will probably be unaware of their disappearance. Instead we will be swept up by the excitement of the future at Alnwick. For much of the 20th century, the estate followed a policy of keeping its head down. Now the Northumberlands have, once again, embraced the world, demonstrating the regional leadership that has always been their destiny. The Duchess’s famous gardens at Alnwick were conceived of to put the North-East of England on the map, and – such is the alchemy that this family, whose principal seat was a film location for Harry Potter, can still work – they have succeeded beyond all hopes.

Property from the Collections of the Dukes of Northumberland 

Indian and South East Asian
1 October 2014, New York

Arts of the Islamic World
8 October 2014, London

Travel, Atlases and Natural History
4 November 2014, London


Clive Aslet is Editor-at-Large of Country Life.

Lead image: 
Syon House, the Duke of Northumberland’s magnificent home, just west of London. © Adam Woolfitt/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis.