The Keep

Decorated initial T

t the centre of an irregular and elongated space, occupying five acres, enclosed by high walls, strengthened by military towers varying in size and height, stands the Keep, or Donjon itself, a concentration of great towers grouped round a central or inner court, each tower bearing a name, according to its ancient purpose, its position, or that of its builder; and, conspicuous above all, the great Prudhoe Tower, named after the peerage title of the fourth Duke before he inherited the title. It is an immense structure, rising, with its flag tower, to the height of nearly a hundred feet. On its western front is sculptured, on a sunk panel, a lion guardant, bearing a banner emblazoned with the quarterings of Prudhoe, an interesting feature, brightening up, without disturbing, its otherwise severe dignity. By the side of this tower stands the chapel, easily distinguished by its high-pitched leaden roof and its golden cross. These, with the two octagonal towers, and a series of six semicircular ones, complete the interesting combination called the Keep.

The Interior and Its Decorations

In 1854, when the restorations were begun, the “War of the Styles” was at its hottest. Gothic and Classic were throwing at each other their authoritative missives, backed by their cherished Art canons. The decision of a noble duke to decorate his mediaeval keep in the manner of an Italian palazzo, fell like a thunderbolt in the midst of their contention. The advocates of Gothic raised the cry of incongruity, and prophesied failure; asserting that the change from the exterior to the interior would be like the transformation in a pantomime. The realisation of these rather dismal forebodings, and a justification of the many quips and exaggerations freely indulged in at that time, does not show in the result now. The two styles are not brought into violent discordancy with each other. The development of the Italian is gradual, beginning with simplicity at the entrance, and, where a feature of the ruder style shows itself, its appearance is rather sympathetic than otherwise; at all events, it can be said with confidence that it never offends.

Commendatore Canina, a Roman archaeologist aud architect, was first consulted by the Duke regarding the decorations, but on account of his advanced age he declined the work in favour of his friend and pupil, Signor Giovanni Montiroli, to whom he gave his aid and advice. In 1856, when the works were in progress, the Commendatore visited Alnwick.

The Italian architect, Signor Montiroli, at the suggestion of the Duke (who took an active personal interest throughout in the designing of the decorations), chose for his examples the style of Art that prevailed during the revival in Italy at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, and in adapting his style to the less symmetrical forms and eccentricities of the Edwardian Gothic, which is the character of the exterior, he has shown much skill and judgment. We would like to lay stress on this fact, for a contemporary recently attributed this artistic ingenuity to Mr. Salvin.

That portion of the Castle which has received the most attention in the richness and fulness of decoration, comprise the five principal state rooms, the Boudoir of the Duchess, the private apartments, the Grand Staircase, the Guard Chamber, and the state bedrooms, all on the one floor.

The Grand Staircase and Guard Chamber

The extensive entrance hall is plain and severe in treatment. On reaching the first landing we find the first indications of the character and richness of the style of decoration, in two whit marble candelabra of classic design, placed on either side of the first steps. By a constructional combination, the Guard Chamber (which is thirty feet square by twenty in height from its own floor), forms an open vestibule to the staircase, by three grand arches supported by massive, well-proportioned piers. Through one of these archings the Guard Chamber is reached. The other two openings are protected by white marble balustradings, with pedestals in the centre, on which stand marble candelabra.

The walls of the staircase, to the uppermost landing, are lined with polished coloured granite and marbles, set in panellings. The steps and landings are of white Rothbury stone. The ceiling of the staircase is vaulted, and decorated with enriched panels; while that of the Guard Chamber is flat, also divided into panels of geometric forms, deeply coffered, and filled in with ornamental foliage. Immediately below the ceiling on the walls runs a broad frieze, in which are placed four pictures illustrative of the old ballad of “Chevy Chase,” painted by Francis Gotzenburg, a German.

From the Guard Chamber passages radiate to all parts of the house. A door leads immediately into the ante-room, the first of the series of State Drawing-Rooms. It has a carved wood ceiling, which is richly coloured and gilt. The walls are hung with green satin damask, and round three parts of the room (substituted for a dado) are dwarf walnut bookshelves, inlaid with sycamore, and filled with books, somewhat assimilating it with the library, which is gained by a door on the left.

The Library

This noble room occupies one floor of the Prudhoe Tower. The middle portion of the western wall recedes, and forms a third division of the room, equal in breadth to the other two. All the fittings, including doors and windows, are in polished oak, inlaid with sycamore and lime-tree. A gallery, supported on carved brackets, and protected by an elegant gilt metal railing, surrounds the room, except in the western recess, where the bookcases only reach to the level of the gallery. In the tympana of the bookcases may be noticed two marble medallion portraits of the fourth Duke and Duchess, by Macdonald. On the three marble chimney-pieces stand busts of Shakespeare, by Altini, and of Bacon and Newton, by Strazza. The ceiling is of wood, painted in various colours, and gilt. It is divided into four predominating squares, in the centre of which are octagonal panels, containing carved trophies, symbolising History, Music, Science, and the Fine Arts; the other panels which complete the graceful combination are enriched with conventional foliage, cor responding to their geometric forms. The collection of books is choice and valuable. In the 16,000 volumes which it contains (including the Duke's private library), works treating on all branches of ancient and modern literature, are to be found unique missals (one or two especially beautiful), and elaborate tomes, all in rich and characteristic bindings. Repassing through the ante-room, we reach the Music-Room and Drawing-Room.

The Dining-Room

It differs from the other rooms, inasmuch as the ceiling is not painted, but left in the natural colour of the St. John's pine; so is the carved frieze and several of the large picture frames. The walls are hung with red satin damask. The pictures are family portraits, ranging from the seventh Earl to the present Duke; five of them being copies, by Philips, from the originals now in Petworth (once a possession of the Percys), also portraits of the first Duchess, Charlotte-Florentia; third Duchess, Eleanor, Dowager-Duchess; the Countess of Beverley (the consort of the fifth Duke); and Louisa, the present Duchess. The portrait at the end of the room is that of the fourth Duke (by Grant), the restorer of the Castle.

One of the large circular pieces of gold plate shown on the side board in the illustration is Flaxman's Achilles Shield. The chimney-piece, the finest in the Castle, is of Sicilian marble, designed by Montiroli, and executed by Taccalozzi, Strazza, and Nucci.

On each side of the fireplace, in the walnut dado, are placed four carved panels. It was the original intention to have carved each alternate panel, after the manner of the choir of Perugia, over the entire dado; but this has not yet been carried out.

The Pictures

In Alnwick Castle there is no place set apart as a picture gallery proper, the pictures being distributed throughout all the rooms. The large and interesting collection within the walls contains works by Caneletto, portraits by Vandyck, Battoni, Lely, and Kneller, and examples of some of our eminent British artists—Wilkie, Landseer, Carmichael, Richardson, Ward, and others. But the great bulk is composed of works by early Italian artists, which were bought in Italy by the fourth Duke in 1853, a large portion of them having formed the gallery of the Brothers Camuccini, while the others were selected from various galleries in Rome and Venice.

In selecting a few from the vast collection mention may be made (beginning in the ante-room) of “Christ Curing the Possessed,” by Garofolo. In the music room is “Ahasuerus and Esther,” by Guercino; “Three Heads,” by Giorgione, a picture referred to by Byron in his poem of “Beppo”:—

'Tis but a portrait of his son and wife,
And self; but such a woman, love in life.

The “Salutation of the Virgin,” by Sebastian del Piombo, a picture the outlining of which is attributed to Michael Angelo. It was removed from the walls of Santa Maria della Pace, a church in Rome, by the orders of the French Government, and was afterwards purchased by Cardinal Fesch. Besides other interesting pictures in this room is a forcible small portrait of Pope Paul III., by Titian.

In the Drawing-Room, among other finc works, is placed “The Gods Enjoying the Fruits of the Earth,” a large picture by Gian Bellini, who was assisted by his pupil, Titian. Kügler, in his book on the Italian schools of painting, says of this picture that the “supernatural beauty in colour, expression, and landscape in this little-known work renders it one of the most precious that has descended to us.” Also, in this room is a “Sunset,” by Claude Lorraine, one of his finest works, and which is engraved in the “Liber Veritatis,” Vol. I., page 14.

In the Duchess's charming boudoir, the pictures selected for its decoration are small in size. Here is a “St. Catherine,” by Giotto, a “Holy Family,” by Francesco Rossi del Salviate, a picture once the property of Sir David Wilkie, by whom it was much prized; a “Magdalene Reading,” by Correggio; “The Madonna dei Garofani,” by Raffaele, a most exquisite example of those charming little cabinet pictures by this master one so frequently meets with in the galleries of Rome; also a “Holy Family,” a miniature by Sebastian del Piombo. The two last-named are encased in boxwood frames, most minutely carved in the Castle studio.

The Marble Sculptures and Mosaics

Nearly all the marble sculpture in the Castle is decorative, mostly applied in the chimney-pieces already referred to. In the strangers' bath-room there are three small bassi relievi, by John Gibson, and an “Eva,” by Macdonald.

There are some beautiful mosaic-works in the Chapel, the most exquisite being a broad frieze of Alexandrian mosaic, identical in character with, and evidently copied from, examples to be found in rich profusion in the basilicas and churches in Rome.

In the chimney-picce in the Duchess's boudoir are some fine specimens of Florentine mosaic executed in the Royal manufactory at Florence.

The Wood-Carving

This branch of art, which forms in the embellishments of Alnwick Castle a feature of considerable importance, is purely conventional in treatment.

When the restoration of the Castle was determined on, the grand old art of wood-carving was thought to have much degenerated in this country, consequently it was at first decided by the Duke to have the carvings executed in Italy and transmitted here.

A circumstance here occurred, however, which altered this decision.

Mr. Salvin, the English architect, anxious for the credit of his country, brought forward Mr. Brown, a Scottish artist, who, in a test with the Florentine artist (recommended to the Duke by Antonelli), was so successful, that it was then decided to have the carving done by British artists, under the supervision of Bulletti, the Florentine referred to. A studio was then formed, and between twenty and thirty artists were gathered together to execute the work under their direction.

After a short period Signor Bulletti resigned. The studio still continued, and even now forms an interesting institution at the Castle, Mr. Brown, with the assistance of his friend and former pupil, Mr. Amory, producing works that are full of interest to those who take delight in this ancient branch of the decorative arts.


“Alnwick Castle.” 30 (9 August 1884): 137-41. Hathi Trust online version of a copy in the New York Public Library. Web. 11 July 2021.

Last modified 12 July 2021