Following the death of her brother in 1744 Elizabeth became heir to the Percy estates and her father’s title. Upon her father’s death in 1750 she inherited the barony of Percy and Hugh Smithson was created Earl of Northumberland, promptly adopting the Percy name. An influential courtier and prolific diarist, Elizabeth found herself at the centre of Georgian society. She proved a popular figure, a keen patron of the arts, collector and famed hostess. James Boswell highlighted her as a figure of influence and a gateway to artistic patronage, himself frequently attending the Duchess’s famed gatherings. Hugh Percy, a politician and statesman proved equally adept at manoeuvring through public office and developed a close association with John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Their friendship was underlined in 1786 with the marriage of the Percys eldest son Hugh to Lord Bute’s daughter Anne Stuart.
In May 1762 Hugh Percy was appointed Lord Chamberlain to Queen Charlotte, with Elizabeth serving as a Lady of the Bedchamber. The couple were highly influential and in 1766 they were raised to the Dukedom by George III.
Despite a close friendship with the Queen, by 1770 Lady Elizabeth Percy found her popularity at court waning. Horace Walpole, who found her to be an individual full of contradictions, records her fall from grace, which he attributed to her pride and extravagance. Blodgett notes an entry in the Duchess’s diary for 4 February 1770 which recounts her determination to remove herself from court ‘where I found I had no longer the Degree of favour I had before enjoy’d and my health being not so good as when I was younger’. Following her retirement from court, Lady Elizabeth travelled extensively across Europe and Britain, which she recorded in her detailed accounts.
Elizabeth Percy died on 5 December 1776 at her London townhouse, Northumberland House. Her funeral on 18 December began at 10 o’clock with a procession from her home in the Strand to Westminster Abbey. On approaching the west door of the Abbey the procession was met by the Lord Bishop of Rochester and the Dean of Westminster, with a full choir in attendance. Despite The Gentleman’s Magazine’s assertions that the ceremony ‘was as private as could be consistent with her rank’, huge crowds flocked to witness the procession. The account of the Duchess’s funeral goes on to record how a number of spectators seeking a better view, climbed upon St. Edmunds Chapel, adjacent to the Chapel of St. Nicholas where the Duchess was to be interred. As a result part of St. Edmunds Chapel collapsed, causing severe injuries to several and delaying the ceremony ‘upwards of two hours’.
For Robert Adam the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland were some of his most significant patrons, his working relationship with them spanning three decades. Following their inheritance, the couple began a series of architectural works with the aim of restoring the Percy estates to their former glory. The Adam office received numerous commissions for the substantial alterations to Alnwick Castle, Syon House and Northumberland House. Aymonino highlights how in each instance there is an apparent conversation between the clients and Adam as to how each scheme might best reflect the needs of a couple at the height of Georgian society. The Gothic style implemented at Alnwick sought to underline the ‘ancient lineage’ of the Percy line. Syon House employed striking classical interiors, invoking the Roman ideal of the country villa. The family townhouse on the Strand, home to the Duchess’s fashionable gatherings, employed the newest trends epitomised in the famed mirrored drawing room.
In early 1778, just over a year after the Duchess’s death, Hugh Percy approached Adam with a further commission requesting designs for a monument dedicated to his wife. Aymonino highlights that prior to the designs for the Westminster Abbey monument, Adam produced a scheme for a private cenotaph intended for the family chapel at Alnwick. This was designed in the gothic style (SM Adam volume 10/92) and executed with minor alterations by Nicholas Read, the finished piece was monumental in size measuring 9ft in length and over 4ft wide. It took several years to complete, with Adam providing further drawings in June 1781 and Read paid for further alterations in August 1783. The project coincided with a scheme for new interiors for the chapel designed by Adam, but these were lost, along with the monument, when the castle was updated in the nineteenth century.
Adam’s drawing for the Duchess’s monument at Westminster Abbey is dated July 1778. As with the scheme for Alnwick Chapel, the design was executed by Nicholas Read with some minor alterations. The monument was principally classical in its composition, which King notes as surprising given the Duchess’s taste for the gothic. Interestingly The Gentleman’s Magazine notes a blend of the Roman funerary style with elements belonging to ‘the reigns of Elizabeth and James I’. In particular the use of the elliptical arch beneath the sarcophagus is compared to older adjoining tombs. Aymonino suggests that Adam’s application of Elizabethan elements makes a direct link between this monument and the tomb of Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset (d. 1587), which lies opposite. It was through her Seymour ancestor that Lady Elizabeth Percy inherited the right of interment in St. Nicholas Chapel, Westminster, a link which Hugh Percy was keen to establish.
Archival material at Alnwick Castle records that whilst work on the Duchess’s monument was under way, Hugh Percy paid for the construction of a private vault for the use of the family, whilst simultaneously repairing the older Somerset vault. A bill dated 30 April 1779 (Alnwick, SY/U/1/111) notes
‘the removing several old monuments replacing the same properly so as to give more room and making two family vaults under Nicholas Chapel in Westminster Abbey for the Northumberland family £145. 2,0’
The Duchess’s monument was completed between March and June 1782, with Read submitting his final bill for alterations on 27 February (Alnwick SY/U/1/46/56). The central relief panel depicts the Duchess seated and in the form of Charity distributing alms to the poor. Aymonino compares this with the scenes of Clementia so often found in Roman funeral imagery. The sarcophagus is flanked by the personifications of Hope and Faith, which vary slightly from Adam’s designs. Aymonino also notes the use of symbolisim to celebrate the Duchess’s Percy lineage, combined with the family motto ‘Esperance en Dieu’ (Hope in God), mirrored in the presence of Hope and Faith. The epitaph was composed by Thomas Percy, Chaplain to the family and author of ‘Reliques of ancient English poetry’. Here he emphasised Duchess Elizabeth as ‘an ornament of courts… a honour to her country… a protectoress of the poor, ever distinguished for the most tender affection for her family and friends’.
See also: Alnwick Castle Northumberland; Northumberland House, The Strand, London; Syon House, Brentford, Middlesex
The Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1776, p. 576; The Gentleman’s Magazine, June 1782, p. 287; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index p. 51; J. Greig (ed.), The diaries of a duchess, 1927; N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The buildings of England: London 3: North West, 1991, pp. 442-45; N. Pevsner, I. Richmond et. al, The buildings of England: Northumberland, 1992, pp. 135-139; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 368-369, pl.532; J. Goodall, ‘The Lion of the North, Alnwick Castle, Northumberland’, Country Life, 4 March 2009, pp. 44-53; A. Aymonino, ‘Decorum and celebration of the family line: Robert Adam’s monuments to the 1st Duchess of Northumberland’, The Burlington Magazine, May 2010, pp. 288-296; F. Sands, Robert Adam's London, 2016, pp. 12-15; ‘Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland and Percy family’, www.westminster-abbey.org; ‘Glass Drawing Room 1773-1774’, www.collections.vam.ac.uk; H. Blodgett, ‘Percy, Elizabeth (nee Lady Elizabeth Seymour), duchess of Northumberland and suo jure Baroness Percy (1716-1776)’, September 2004, www.oxforddnb.com; J. Cannon, ‘Percy (formerly Smithson), Hugh, first duke of Northumberland (bap. 1712, d. 1786), September 2004, www.oxforddnb.com (accessed March 2021)
Anna McAlaney, 2021
Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.
Browse (via the vertical menu to the left) and search results for Drawings include a mixture of Concise catalogue records – drawn from an outline list of the collection – and fuller records where drawings have been catalogued in more detail (an ongoing process).