These festive summer hangings, which are conceived as French tapestries wreathed in golden trompe l'oeil shell-and-flower frames, were part of a commission in 1750 from the French artist Andien de Clermont (d. 1783), by Sir Hugh Percy (born Smithson), 2nd Earl of Northumberland (later 1st Duke of Northumberland) (d.1786) and his Countess Elizabeth Percy for a parlour or pavilion at their Thames-side villa Syon House, Middlesex .
These window-pier hangings, with waterfowl and giant flowering shrubs displayed above bacchic water-spouting masks, accompanied larger landscapes where rare birds inhabited Arcadian "menagerie" enclosures whose fountains were sculpted with cupids and Love's swan; while some "buffet" hangings portrayed monkeys occupied with the vintage in vine-trellised arbours (see Sotheby's, 1997, lots 17-23). Their beautiful flowers reflect Clermont's earlier career as designer for tapestries woven at the Soho tapestry works of Joshua Morris, as well as his authorship of pattern-books such as Différents pensés d'ornement, and Nouveau livre de Groupes d'enfans.
His skill in paintings, executed in this antique "Roman" fashion designated "grotesque" work, was noted in Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1762, which listed:- "Clermont. painted in grotesque, foliages with birds and monkeys, and executed several ceilings and ornaments of buildings in gardens: particularly a gallery for Frederic[k], Prince of Wales , at Kew..". Inspiration for the Syon hangings, which included images of birds from the Duke of Richmond's aviary and "cabinet of curiosities", was George Edwards' publication of The Natural History of Uncommon Birds (Vol. I, 1743;Vol II,1747) (J. Selborne, "Goodwood's Uncommon Birds", Country Life, 12 March 1998, pp. 87-89)
Walpole's Anecdotes also recorded the execution of a "ceiling for Lord Northumberland at Sion" by Clermont; and the artist had already received payment for work carried out for the Earl by July 1750. In September that year Countess Elizabeth informed her mother, the Duchess of Somerset, that: - "Mr. Clermont is painting some hangings for Syon". However as she had left her own copy of George Edward's book at her Northumberland property Alnwick Castle, she requested the loan of her mother's copy to assist Clermont. It is also noted in Account Books that in December 1752 Clermont was paid £75 "in full for painting Syon"; while in May the previous year he had been paid £12 for "painting glass", which is likely to have been a flower-painted overmantel-mirror in the Louis Quatorze fashion.
This pair formed part of the hangings recorded in 1907 as "a suite of 16 old French panels of painted tapestry".
Syon House became part of the estate of Sir Hugh Smithson, through his wife Elizabeth Seymour. Sir Hugh Smithson became Earl in 1750, and 1st Duke of Northumberland in 1766. The Duke and Duchess completely redesigned the Syon House estate: they instructed Robert Adam (d.1792) to remodel the interiors of Syon House in the 1760s, and the landscape gardener Lancelot Brown (d. 1783), to lay out the grounds. In 1761, Adam published his plan for the interior decoration of Syon House and five main rooms on the west, south and east sides of the House, from the Great Hall to the Long Gallery were refurbished in the Neo-classical style.
CONSERVATION TREATMENT BY ALLYSON MCDERMOTT
Allyson McDermott embarked on a comprehensive restoration of these panels. Based at Petworth House in Sussex, she is a consultant in the care and conservation of the fine and decorative arts.
The panels were comprehensively tested before cleaning took place. Loose particular surface dirt was first removed using a micro-vacuum on the back and the front. The images were then carefully cleaned using conservation-grade materials, under magnification to ensure no movement of the pigments or disruption of the fibre structure. Following this the panels were immersion washed, tests having shown that this resulted in better re-knitting of the textile fibres, and hence a stronger panel. They were then re-sized, and careful repairs made to any holes or fraying areas of the textile.