The recent publication of Enlightened Eclecticism. The Grand Design of the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland has shed light on what was one of the most successful patronage campaigns in eighteenth-century Britain.
The work is, in fact, dedicated to a pair of sui generis patrons: the first Duke and first Duchess of Northumberland: Sir Hugh Smithson (1712-1786) and Lady Elizabeth Seymour Percy (1716-1776), who approached the arts in an eclectic and interdisciplinary way, embracing classicism and modernity at the same time.
Owners of four residences: Stanwick Hall, Northumberland House, Syon House and Alnwick Castle, they were also major supporters of the Scottish architect Robert Adam, with whom they designed their houses down to the last detail.
The author, Adriano Aymonino, does not skimp on detail in describing the vastness of their belongings, dwelling at length on the Duchess's collection; a veritable ante litteram Wunderkammer, as well as the funerary monument at Westminster Abbey.
Patrons of Canaletto, Batoni, Reynolds and the aforementioned Adam, the dukes left privileged access to the nascent Neoclassicism and the heyday of the Grand Tour.
For this reason, Aymonino's book opens up new perspectives on the central decades of the eighteenth century, analysing the period that acted as a bridge between the Enlightenment and contemporaneity, breaking with the canons of the classist vision to open up to a more eclectic and avant-garde aesthetic destined to find its greatest outlet in the nineteenth century.
Aymonino is Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Programmes in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Buckingham. He has curated a number of art exhibitions and books and, in our lengthy interview, he tells us in more detail about the research that led to the publication of Enlightened Eclecticism. The Grand Design of the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, and he sheds light on future projects.
I would start by asking what prompted the research for Enlightened Eclecticism?
When I was working for a private gallery (Trinity Fine Art), I was sent to look for a bronze in Alnwick Castle, as they assumed it had passed through the Northumberland collections in the eighteenth century, although it had not. However, on seeing the archives of Alnwick Castle - and the works that still survived, bringing together all the Northumberland’s estates - I realised that it was a subject on which much research could still be done, especially into the relationship between Italy, the Mediterranean world and northern Europe at that time.
This book is indeed a volume on collecting and patronage, on architectural history and country houses, but it is above all a work that relates to the culture of the Grand Tour. As the Dukes collected and built on Italian and Roman models, it is interesting to see how cultural codes migrate from one country to another and how they are transformed. I really wanted to focus on this for my Ph.D. and looking at the NHs I realised that they were an ideal lens because they were one of the richest families of the time and their patronage spanned from the 1740s to the 1780s. Their individual tastes are completely different, giving us a 360-degree view of what the different trends of the Georgian era were, how they coexisted and how the past was being 'used', at that particular time, in England.
What were the prominent findings, while analysing their collections?
This book shows that Neoclassicism and Gothicism could co-exist within the same patronage campaign. The cover spread plays on the juxtaposition of the two elements. The Northumberlands were great buyers of works of art, but above all, they were the most important patrons of Robert Adam: the greatest British architect of his time, the inventor of Neoclassicism. Adam left us a veritable museum on paper made up of reliefs and details taken from Rome, which allowed him, once back in the UK, to use it as a base for his artistic fortune, really drawing on his knowledge of Ancient Rome.
Returning from the capital in 1758, Adam began Syon House, his first monumental commission, allowing him to form his own architectural language, thanks to the supervision of the duke who controlled him step by step, making patronage really dialogue with the work itself.
My main discoveries concern the Duchess's enormous collection; that Museum which she set up in the London mansion of Northumberland House (demolished in 1874, but located opposite the National Gallery), which was then the largest private house in London. Her collection is spread over ten rooms, in which she distributed the works and drew up an eight-volume catalogue, which still exists. It is an eighteenth-century Wunderkammer, to all intents and purposes, which I was able to reconstruct thanks to the catalogue she compiled and her travel diaries. There are paintings, miniatures, coins, prints, manuscripts, bronzes and ivories, allowing naturalia and artificialia to meet.
The chapter I spent the most time on is the one dedicated to Syon House because it is there that I made new attributions and reconstructed the whole decorative apparatus, highlighting the architecture, sculpture and reliefs that are based on Roman sources. The real challenge was to understand how the collections were distributed according to the chosen styles.
A very detailed chapter is devoted to the Duchess's funeral monument. How does this sculptural work fit in with the history of the four residences?
In my book, I wanted to reconstruct the portfolio that a couple of patrons carried out over the course of a lifetime, taking into account the characteristics of each residence: Northumberland House as the modern urban seat, Alnwick Castle as the ancestral gothic country house, Syon House for its suburban Roman style and Stanwick Hall because it was the duke’s original country house.
With regard to the memorial, it should be remembered that, just like the great Roman families, the Duke and Duchess knew everyone and their history followed what was happening in Italy (if we think of the Farnese, Borghese, Savoia, or Giustiniani dynasties). All these dynasties had several important residences and funerary monuments to underline their visibility. In the case of the duchess, this is the only eighteenth-century memorial erected in the area of Westminster Abbey, which is just for the royalty.
They obtained permission to build and were very careful, as monuments were immediately reviewed in the press and, if they did not comply with the laws of decorum, they were destroyed. Westminster Abbey was the place where sculpture was exhibited most in the 18th century, in the absence of an Art Academy (which did not open until 1768). The design of the monument was commissioned to Adam and is neoclassical and eclectic. The structure is reminiscent of 16th-17th century monuments, with a pyramid shape and an arch underneath. It is a hybrid of ancient and modern styles, to underline their antiquity as a family but also their being at the forefront of supporting the arts, in a constant tension between ancestral pride and modernity, and the monument is adapted to this vision.
What projects are you currently working on? I'm thinking about Adam's website, for example.
I am working on an updated version of Taste and the Antique (a history of the development of critical opinions on ancient Greek and Roman sculpture discusses the owners, identification, copies, and fame of individual statues), together with Eloisa Dodero (of the Capitoline Museums) and Nick Penny. It will come out in June 2022 and will be in three volumes.
The Adam Grand Tour website, on the other hand, is dedicated to Robert and James Adam's Grand Tour to Italy. The two brothers wrote letters and diaries, in which they talked about everything since the most important architects in Europe were trained in those years. There has never been a complete and critical edition of these writings, because they are privately owned and, in agreement with the Soane Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, we will make a complete online edition that will be published on the Soane Museum website, as they own almost all of Adams' drawings. It will be in open access and, later on, it might also appear in two printed volumes.
Furthermore, given my passion for the marbles of ancient Rome, I am preparing a series of documentaries on the subject with my wife Silvia Davoli, an art historian. The first was for the Capitolini and the Santarelli Foundation, which had lent them an enormous collection of glyptics: carvings and cameos from antiquity to the nineteenth century. Recently, it came back into its possession and dedicated a wonderful section to the coloured marbles of ancient Rome, where our video will appear. It tells how Rome, a city of poor materials, from the expansion of the Empire, began to import millions and millions of tons of coloured marbles from all the provinces, giving rise to a titanic enterprise, thanks to which it created a real artificial geology of the city.
The second project will be another series of videos for the Oxford Natural History Museum's Corsi Collection website, as they have a huge collection of samples on the subject. The first will be an interview with Raniero Gnoli, a great scholar of coloured marbles, Sanskrit as well as medieval Indian philosophy, and we will present it at the Masterpiece Fair in London in June 2022.
At the same time, I am working on a book on Pier Leone Ghezzi's Studio di Molte Pietre with Silvia for MIT Press, due out this year.