9618 THE NORTHUMBERLAND MIRRORS A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF EARLY ROCOCO GEORGE II GILTWOOD MIRRORS English. Second Quarter Of The Eighteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 106″ (269.3 cm); Width: 58″ (147.3 cm)
Each with a central rectangular plate contained within a border of smaller plates, mostly old replacements, all within regilded giltwood frames carved with scrolling acanthine leaves, flowers, fruits and rocaille, the cresting with a rococo cartouche flanked by scrollwork, the apron with an asymmetrical scallop-shell scroll. Largely re-gilt, small areas of original gilding present.
Collection of His Grace, The Duke of Northumberland, KG, GCVO, TD, FRS
Sotheby’s London, 15 November 1985
Important American private collection
The design of the present pair of mirrors is one of the most complex and dynamic expressions of the early rococo style in England. The mirrors employ the language of the rococo in the form of rocaille, floral and shell-like forms, and c-scrolls, yet retain a baroque sense of massivity and balance that eschews any hint of rococo frivolity.
The mirrors formed, at one time, part of the iconic collection of the Duke of Northumberland. According to Graham Child, they have a history of being present in three of the Ducal residences. “They were formerly at a house called Stanwick Park… The pair is also illustrated in the Duke of Northumberland’s archives as being in the collection at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, and were recently removed from Syon House, Middlesex.”1
Sir Hugh Smithson of Yorkshire (1714-1786), who adopted the name Percy upon his marriage to Elizabeth Percy in 1740, inherited the title of Earl of Northumberland from his father-in-law, Algernon Seymour, in 1750. In 1766 he became first Duke of Northumberland, and set about restoring Alnwick Castle, making it his principle seat. The other properties belonging to the Duke included Northumberland House, his London residence, and Syon House and Stanwick Park, secondary estates.
Percy, whose life spanned the Georgian period of style, was a great patron of the fine and decorative arts. He “spent enormous sums in very costly decorations…and his wise husbandry rendered possible the alterations and decorations at Syon House, Alnwick, and Northumberland.”2 The Ducal residences were decorated in a range of styles, with Stanwick in early Georgian taste, Syon in the neoclassical, and Alnwick in the gothic manner. In a letter of 1752, Horace Walpole observed that the Duke’s immense building enterprises would leave them penniless: “‘—in short they will soon have no estate.’ But Walpole was wrong, for under the new Earl’s able administration they grew richer.”3
Sir Hugh employed some of the greatest architects and cabinetmakers of the day to design the properties and their contents including Robert Adam, Matthias Lock, and Thomas Chippendale, who dedicated his Gentleman & Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754) to the Duke. The result at Northumberland House was an astounding estate, occupying nearly four and a half acres, where the Duke and Lady Northumberland became known for hosting opulent parties in lavish interiors. The ballroom could accommodate upwards of six hundred guests and “everything else was right for large-scale entertaining;”4 on one occasion there were “1,500 persons of distinction [at] a vast assembly at Northumberland House.’”5 Mirrors such as the present pair would have been perfectly in keeping with a home of such opulence and splendor.
The present mirrors are discernibly George II in style, bordering both the baroque and rococo tastes, and are similar in form to the type of work being produced by the likes of Benjamin Goodison and Matthias Lock. Figure 1 depicts a detail of a drawing by Lock for his book, Six Sconces, which exhibits similar decorative elements to those found in the present pair of mirrors, particularly the lower central element in Lock’s cresting. Aside from their overall symmetry, the selective use of areas of gilded sand is further proof of the mirrors being an early example of the rococo style in England. This feature was often seen on mirrors and picture frames from the Palladian oeuvre of William Kent in the 1730s and early 40s, but did not reemerge after this period.
1. Child, Graham. World Mirrors 1650-1900. London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1990. 111.
2. “Furniture at Alnwick Castle.” Country Life. 27 April 1929. 617.
3. Sykes, Christopher Simon. Private Palaces. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1985. 151.
4. ibid. 152.