Collector, Traveller and the Life and Soul of the Party: Elizabeth Percy, 1st Duchess of Northumberland

Happy International Women’s Day! Seeing all the amazing articles and tweets flying around today about pioneering women the whole world over has really inspired me to think about the women in history who I really admire. I research women’s history, so today is really important in terms of reflecting on how far we’ve come as a society in terms of women’s rights, but also how far we have to go. And as I spend all day thinking about women in history, I wanted to write a post about a woman who I have been researching really closely for a while now, and who I utterly adore.

Researching eighteenth century women in country houses has really revealed some fun and interesting characters, but the one I want to share today is Elizabeth Percy.

Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland by Richard Houston, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, mezzotint (NPG D3741)

Many people may not have heard of her, but Elizabeth was 1st Duchess of Northumberland, and divided her time between Alnwick Castle, Syon Park, London and, quite often, continental Europe. However, she was a real mover and shaker in eighteenth century of society, acting as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte and travelling independently across Europe, meeting friends and acquaintances along the way.

Born in 1716, she married Sir Hugh Smithson in 1740, and they were a complete love match. It is really evident from researching Elizabeth that she and Hugh saw themselves as equal life partners, with both taking important roles in managing and preserving their estates. Four years after she married, Elizabeth became the heir to her father’s barony of Percy and the estates in Northumberland and Middlesex. These came into her ownership when her father died in 1750.

Elizabeth is someone I’ve been researching really closely, and, quite honestly, I love her. She pulled no punches and was so refreshingly honest about everyone around her and, despite often being seen as brash, overconfident and outspoken, she was an exceptionally clever woman who was highly interested in art, culture and writing. She was a patroness, a travel writer, a tourist, a political campaigner and collector; nevertheless, she was ridiculed by Horace Walpole as being vulgar, ostentatious and a little overweight. (Something it has to be noted Elizabeth owned, and thoroughly did not care about.)

Marie Antoinette of France, by Émile Desmaisons, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun
hand-coloured lithograph, 1834
(NPG D34624)

She also had an interesting, varied and well-connected social circle: not content with just being friendly with British royalty, she made an impression at the European royal courts as well, including at the Hague. She was friends with the Duchess of Portland, visited by the Bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, attended the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and at the London home she shared with her husband, hosted a multitude of people from Casanova to a delegation of Cherokee Native Americans visiting Britain. She gathered huge collections of furniture, paintings, prints and objects of historical interest, which she travelled all over to find.

Cherokee delegation
The Three Cherokees, came over from the head of the River Savanna to London, 1762 published by George Bickham the Younger (British Museum 1982,U.3745)

The reason I admire Elizabeth so much is because she seems to surpass all expectations of women in the eighteenth century. We expect them to be at home, well behaved and not making as much as a contribution as their husbands – whilst this, overall, is wrong (and one of the reasons I am doing my research!), Elizabeth not only proves this, but turns it on its head.

She left for Europe travelling without her husband (multiple times!), taking in all the galleries, collections, sights and courts she wanted. She collected endless objects because they interested her, and she had her family home redesigned in order to revive her own family history. She not only wrote catalogues of her collections, but also a book about touring country houses in England. She was a focal point for eighteenth century society and culture: yet she did little on the basis it would please others, focussing on her own interests, her family and her friends, learning and travelling.

I think Elizabeth was the kind of woman who took no rubbish, the life and soul of the party, intelligent and supportive to those around. Researching her and reading her writings, having a window into her world, has been an absolute pleasure.

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