THE NORTHUMBERLAND HOUSE ORMOLU CENTREPIECES
Northumberland House, the ancient London house of the Dukes of Northumberlands, originally stood on the Thames-side of the Strand. It came into the possession of the Dukes of Northumberland in 1642 through the marriage of Algernon Percy, 10th Duke of Northumberland to Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the 10th Earl of Suffolk, a great nephew of the Earl of Northampton who built the house between 1605-1609. By the time the 3rd Duke succeded in 1817, the interiors had been largely altered and added to, including Robert Adam's celebrated Glass Drawing Room. Hugh Percy, the 3rd Duke, embarked on a series of radical improvements, on a scale to rival the sumptuous interiors of Devonshire and Grosvenor Houses. The architect Thomas Cundy was employed and amongst his many improvements, installed the marble and scagliola Grand Staircase, which led to an enfilade of three Drawing Rooms on the first floor, each of which was entirely remodelled. The total cost of these alterations is estimated to have exceeded £160,000. The bill for the upholders Morel and Hughes alone was £34,111 9s 7d. In 1874, the 6th Duke was forced, against his wishes, to sell Northumberland House to the Metropolitan Board of Works. Almost all the major fittings were removed and some put in store, others spread to the Percy houses, Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, Syon House, Middlesex and Albury Park, Surrey.
These centrepiece vases were almost certainly originally supplied to the 3rd Duke in 1823 by William Collins as chandeliers, as part of the Duke's refitting of the parade rooms on the South front. Collins' account survives in the Northumberland Archives at Alnwick Castle (U.111.8d):
'1823 May '23 4 Superb Chandeliers executed in Grecian Metal in the Drawing Room, Saloon, Anti Room and Grand Staircase 2700.0.0.'
At the time of the 1988 sale of these centrepieces, two smaller centrepieces were also sold, one of which was inscribed in the inside of the bowl 'MANUFACTURED BY JOHNSTON. BROOKES & CO. 32 NEW STREET SQUARE FOR WM. COLLINS 227 STRAND. 1823'.
The magnificent staircase of marble, with scagliola walls was designed by Cundy in 1821 and is remembered by Thomas Williams, in Northumberland House - Historical and Descriptive Notes, 1875: '..., and in addition to the two Candelabra at the feet, the Staircase is lighted by a magnificent Chandelier of Ormolu on which are displayed the Armorial Lions rampant of the Percies.' All four of the chandeliers are recorded in the 1847 inventory of Northumberland House, and from this it is possible to ascertain which chandelier hung in which room. The four-lion chandelier [with eight branches] hung in the Ante-Room; the six-lion chandelier [with twelve branches] hung in the Staircase; of the other two, one had six lions and the other, five, and it is possible that the six-lion model hung in the larger Saloon.
The form of these centrepieces presents an intriguing question - at what stage were they converted from chandeliers and why? The watercolours of the interiors of Northumberland House, although undated, were probably executed around the time of its demolition in 1874. Clearly shown are what appear to be the bases of the present centrepieces, used as massive jardinieres. It is also interesting to note that their grey-painted and parcel-gilt plinths are similar to that on the huge Sèvres vase (now at Syon), given to the 3rd Duke when he represented George IV at the Coronation of Charles X in 1825. It is possible also that their enormous weight had made them unsafe, or that they had become dangerous to use and impractical or simply out of date. Collins' account includes numerous invoices for maintenance and repair - by the 1850s, his fittings would obviously have been superceded and they may have been replaced by more advanced light fittings.