Design for Brizlee Tower, Alnwick
Robert Adam & office
Pen and ink and wash on laid paper, 213 x 351 mm, mounted on wove paper, 374 x 431 mm
What's the story?
Brizlee Tower was designed in 1777 by Robert Adam for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland in 1777 as a memorial to his recently deceased duchess, Lady Elizabeth Percy. It came towards the end of a two-decade long partnership between Adam, one of the greatest architects and designers of the eighteenth century, and the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, two of the century’s most prolific and influential patrons. Together, they had created some of the finest interiors of eighteenth-century Britain, including the Glass Drawing Room at Northumberland House in London, a suite of neoclassical state rooms at Syon Park, Middlesex (still largely unchanged), and a series of classicised Gothic revival interiors at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in the park of which Brizlee Tower was built.
Lady Elizabeth was descended from the ancient Percy dynasty, one of England’s great noble families, but at the time of her love-marriage in 1740 to Sir Hugh Smithson, he was a mere baronet, whose family fortune had been made in haberdashery. Gradually, the couple ascended the social hierarchy, and Sir Hugh (who had adopted the Percy name) was made Earl, and then Duke of Northumberland. Lady Elizabeth emphasised her noble Percy blood to compensate for her husband’s humble origins. In 1750 she inherited the Percy estates, including the prestigious properties of Northumberland House in London, Syon House in Middlesex, and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. The couple embarked on a major refurbishment of their properties, creating a magnificent setting for their rising status. In partnership with Robert Adam, they created a series of striking and lavish interiors that were among the most fashionable and influential of eighteenth-century Britain.
Alnwick Castle had been one of the great medieval northern strongholds, but since the early seventeenth century it had been virtually abandoned by the Percys in favour of their southern estates. In the 1760s, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland embarked on a major renovation of the Castle, employing Robert Adam to transform its interiors. In deliberate contrast to the neoclassical interiors created by Adam for the couple at Syon House, the Duchess favoured the Gothic revival style for Alnwick. Gothic was often favoured by women, since Classicism was associated with the formal education and Grand Tour from which they were largely excluded. In common with other noble heiresses, the duchess used the Gothic as an expression of her ancient and noble lineage.
Gothic accounted for only a very small percentage of Adam’s work. Principally a neoclassical architect, only three out of his eighty-nine known executed commissions for country houses and estates were in Gothic, of which the Alnwick Castle interiors, and Brizlee Tower, were by far the largest. Between 1769 and 1780, Adam remodelled the saloon, library, drawing room and chapel in his own distinctive hybrid Neoclassical-Gothic style, in which details of both styles were combined in an essentially classical structure. As Peter Lindfield observed, Adam ‘created Gothic buildings, furniture and interiors from the absolute position of a Georgian designer unhampered by antiquarian interest and restraint. Consequently, he was able to recreate and recast medieval Gothic in a decidedly fashionable ‘Adamesque’ mode.’ Adam’s interiors at Alnwick were swept away by the ?th Duke of Northumberland in the mid-nineteenth century in favour of an Italian Renaissance revival makeover, and Adam’s extraordinary interiors are now known only through Adam’s designs and a handful of visitor descriptions and sketches.
Brizlee Towe is the sole survivor of Adam’s extensive work at Alnwick, besides being the only freestanding Gothic structure built by Adam. Even before her death, the duke and duchess of Northumberland had planned to build an 50 foot observation tower on Brizlee Hill (or Briesley, also known as ‘Carmel’), situated in Hulne Park across the river Aln. It was one of the duchess’s favourite spots, and she several created picturesque carriage rides to its summit, which commanded views over the surrounding countryside. After her sudden death on 5 December 1766, the duke decided to erect the tower as a memorial to his wife. Gothic structures were a widely-popular feature of eighteenth-century landscapes, and as Adam had already remodelled the Alnwick interiors in the Gothic style he was the obvious choice to design the memorial tower.
Adam drew up a series of designs for the tower, dated 1777. Four preliminary drawings are in the collection of the Soane Museum (SM Adam volume 19/156-8), with further drawings in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland. Drawn by the Adam office, in either the hand of Robert Adam or Joseph Bonomi, they show plans, elevations and cross-sections of the tower as executed, although one drawing (no. 156), shows figurative sculpture in the niches on the ground floor. In his designs, Adam largely retreated from the classicized Gothic of the Alnwick interiors to a more orthodox Gothic, although some classical details remain, most notably the medallions (these were later executed in artificial stone by Eleanor Coade).
The 88-foot high tower is composed of six tiers. In each tier, a central opening – doors on the ground floor, first and top tiers– are flanked by niches for sculpture, except in the second tier, where the doorway is flanked by two inscription panels, and the top tier, in which each opening is a door to the viewing gallery. The top and first-floor galleries are defined by balconies of quatrefoil and hexafoil tracery, while panelled friezes of and quatrefoils enclosed in circles bring interest and variety to the main body of the tower. The eighteenth-century fondness for the ogee appears (unusually in Adam’s Gothic oeuvre) in the ogee curved lintel of the doorways. By progressively narrowing and simplifying the door and window openings and decoration, Adam creates a sense of elegance and upward momentum, drawing the eye to the viewing gallery and its crowning fire basket. The tower was built of local polished ashlar stone in 1778-80 by mason Matthew Mills, with decorative details by Joseph Rose.
This drawing is almost certainly a final presentation drawing for the tower.