The Northumberland Mirrors
The present mirrors are 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. They were once 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.”
Sir Hugh Smithson of Yorkshire (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. 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. He was a great patron of the fine and decorative arts and “spent enormous sums in very costly decorations…and his wise husbandry rendered possible the alterations and decorations at Syon House, Alnwick, and Northumberland.”
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;” on one occasion there were “1,500 persons of distinction [at] a vast assembly at Northumberland House.’” 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. 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 (pictured below). 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.