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Northumberland House, The Strand, London: designs for the drawing room and dining room for the 1st Duke of Northumberland, 1770-79 (24)

Signed and dated

  • 1770-79


Hugh Smithson (1712-86) succeeded his father, Sir Langdale Smithson, as the 4th Baronet in 1727, aged 17. The Smithson family had made a fortune in haberdashery on Cheapside, and bought the Stanwick estate near Catterick in 1638. The 1st Baronet had been created by Charles II in 1663 because he had supported Charles I during the Civil War. Smithson went on to inherit estates and wealth from his sister and cousin, and in 1740 he married Lady Elizabeth Percy (d1776), the daughter of the 7th Duke of Somerset (her maternal grandfather was the 11th Earl of Northumberland). As Elizabeth’s only sibling, George, died of smallpox during his Grand Tour in 1744, she inherited everything in 1750 from both the Dukedom of Somerset, and the Earldom of Northumberland. This not only brought Sir Hugh the estates of Syon, Alnwick Castle and Northumberland House on the Strand, but also the Earldom, elevating him to the 12th Earl of Northumberland.

In 1766 the Earl was created 1st Duke of Northumberland (of the third creation). His incredible rise was partly thanks to his marriage, party thanks to a friendship with Lord Bute (his son married Bute’s daughter in 1764), and partly thanks to his various public offices. He had served as MP for Middlesex in 1740-50, until his elevation to the Earldom when he became active in the House of Lords. He was also Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1738-39; a trustee of the British Museum in 1753-86; a Lord of the Bedchamber in 1753-63; Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland in 1753-86; Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex in 1763-65; Vice-Admiral of North America in 1764 and Master of the Horse in 1778-80. Moreover, he was a skilled land manager, exploiting coal reserves, and vastly increasing the financial yields of his estates, which enabled him to undertake large-scale rebuilding works across the country. By these means, Northumberland became one of the greatest patrons of the arts, and his Duchess was a renowned connoisseur, undertaking numerous tours of other great country houses, in an effort to observe and record the works undertaken by her contemporaries.

Northumberland House on the Strand, was built in c1605-12 by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton to designs by Bernard Jansen (ND), and on the site of a former convent. On Northampton’s death in 1614, the house passed to his nephew, Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, whose son, the 2nd Earl, included it as part of his daughter Elizabeth’s marriage settlement when she married Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland in 1642. The house remained in the possession of the Percy family – coming to be known as Northumberland House – until its sale to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1874 for £500,000, and its immediate demolition for the creation of Northumberland Avenue.

Numerous programmes of alteration were carried out at Northumberland House. Adam had already started work for the 1st Duke of Northumberland at Syon and Alnwick, and in 1770 he took over from James Paine (1717-89) to decorate the interiors of the drawing room and dining room in the garden-facing range. Work began in 1773. It is not thought that Adam’s dining room scheme was executed, but prior to demolition the famous interior of Adam’s glass drawing room was dismantled and removed in crates to the riding school at Syon. In 1945 the interior was sold to Mr Bert Crowther of Syon Lodge, who leased it as temporary décor for parties which sadly caused considerable damage. In 1953, the remains of the room were purchased by the V&A Museum.

See also: Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, and Syon House.

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume I, pp. 39-41, Volume II, p. 292, Index pp. 42, 82; Survey of London, Volume 18, 1937, chapter 2; E. Harris, The furniture of Robert Adam, 1963, pp. 56, 82-83; D. Stillman, The decorative work of Robert Adam, 1966, pp. 74, 93-94, 102; G. Beard, The work of Robert Adam, 1978, p. 64; B. Weinreb and C. Hibbert, The London Encyclopaedia, 1983, pp. 570-571; A.A. Tait, Robert Adam: the creative mind. From the sketch to the finished drawing, 1996, pp. 33-35; J. Ingamells, A dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy: 1701-1800, 1997, p. 873; E. Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam, 2001, chapter 6; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 307, 314; S. Bradley, and N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: London 6: Westminster, 2003, pp. 355-357; ‘Percy [formerly Smithson], Hugh, first duke of Northumberland (bap. 1712, d. 1786)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography online

Frances Sands, 2015



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Contents of Northumberland House, The Strand, London: designs for the drawing room and dining room for the 1st Duke of Northumberland, 1770-79 (24)