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James Johnson, mason carver: bankrupt or rescued by the Percy's?

Posted on | By Thornton Kay
Northumberland, UK - Architectural Heritage has acquired a stone figure of a soldier believed to be from the battlement of Alnwick Castle and carved by James Johnson of Stamfordham, or Stannerton, between 1750 and 1770.

According to the <i>Newcastle Courant</i> of 9 May 1761, James Johnson, mason of Stannerton 'otherwise Stamfordham' was in Morpeth prison as a debtor in company with a glover, surgeon, butcher, schoolmaster, miller and a lieutenant of the 37th Regiment of Foot.

Was Johnson in prison as a result of late payment by the Duke of Northumberland or was he a skilled carver rescued from the debtor's prison by the Duke's largesse?

Architectural Heritage's Alex Puddy writes that it was removed during the restoration at Alnwick castle in the mid-19th century, following its installation in a previous restoration by the first duke some 100 years earlier.

The archivist at Alwnick Castle, Clare Baxter, writes:
<blockquote><i>The device of using stone carved figures to embellish, which is such a feature of the exterior of Alnwick Castle, dates from medieval times and, indeed, those on the Middle Gateway and the Octagonal Towers survive from that period.

When Elizabeth Percy inherited the great Percy estates in 1750 she, with her husband Sir Hugh Smithson, determined to restore Alnwick Castle (then in a ruinous state), landscape the surrounding park and agricultural land, and re-assert Percy influence in the north. Alnwick Castle was restored by the Earl and Countess, Duke and Duchess of Northumberland by 1766, in the 1750s under the guidance of architects Daniel Garrett, James Paine and Robert Adam.

The style was 18th century 'gothick'. Elizabeth, the duchess, was much taken with the romantic notion of her 'braw, rough ancestors', the heroic deeds of Hotspur (son of the first Earl), and the tales and ballads of conflict in the Border region. It is believed that it was she who was keen to add to the stone figures already adorning Alnwick and the mason James Johnson of Stamfordham apparently took 20 years to carve them!

This figure is one of those carved for the castle in the mid-18th century. When Elizabeth's grandson Algernon became 4th Duke in 1847, he chose to replace the 18th century 'gothick' with more serious architecture and employed Anthony Salvin. It was during this second great restoration of the castle that a large number of the stone figures were removed and, for whatever reason, they have left the collection. Periodically these figures appear for sale</i></blockquote>

Incidentally, the duke's illegitimate son (by Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie), James Smithson (1765-1829), is famed for having provided the founding bequest and name for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Architectural Heritage: An 18th century Alnwick Castle 'Battlement Figure' Carved by James Johnson

Story Type: Feature