The Northey Suite is a carved mahogany settee and set of seven side chairs. Displayed predominantly in the Dressing Room on the first floor, each season different pieces are selected to emerge from beneath their protective case covers, revealing the lively and colourful needlework upholstery.
The needlework, or canvas work, was carried out in polychrome wool and silk threads using tent stitch. This simple, diagonal, stitch has been used to depict a wide range of pastoral scenes, from grazing goats, horses, cows and a turkey, to figures playing bowls, cards and musical instruments. The shield-shaped scenes are surrounded by borders of flowers including daisies, tulips, passion flowers and roses. While the individual stitches that make up the pastoral scenes have been worked over a single warp and weft thread (petit point), the floral borders consist of larger stitches worked across double threads (gros point). It was not uncommon, in the 18th century, to use a different technique for the borders, which would be subject to greater wear and tear, but the stylistic variation suggests they may have been carried out at different dates. It is thought that the floral borders were worked by Anne Northey in about 1760 to surround the late 17th century or early 18th century panels. Anne was the wife of William Northey, a Commissioner of Trade and Groom of the Chamber to George III. Needlework upholstery, particularly pictorial covers, was increasingly fashionable in the first half of the 18 th century. The covers were frequently worked by amateur needlewomen who would purchase canvas which had the design, often based upon engravings, already drawn upon it. It was a popular activity amongst Henrietta Howard’s female friends. For example, Lady Betty Germain (sister of Henrietta’s second husband George Berkeley) stitched the bed-hangings for her four poster bed at Knole in Kent, while Catherine Hyde, Duchess of Queensbury, who lived near by at Petersham, ‘worked’ furniture covers.
Although the Northey Suite only became part of Marble Hill’s collections in 1972 (with a further chair acquired in 2007), Henrietta furnished her house with needlework hangings and upholstery. As the 1767 and 1768 inventories of Marble Hill record, in the Great Room there was a needlework settee with two cushions and two bolsters, in Miss Hotham’s Bedchamber a four post bedstead with needlework curtains, and in the Gallery an armchair covered with needlework. The Wrought Room, on the second floor, derives its name from the embroidered hangings of the bed, described in the inventory as ‘A Four post Bedstead with Curtains and Furniture to Ditto worked’. Rather than needlework carried out using wool on canvas, ‘wrought’ traditionally referred to stitched linen.
Henrietta certainly had a taste for high quality textiles, as Alexander Pope may have alluded to in his An Epistle to a Lady (1735):
She, while her lover pants upon her breast,
Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
And when she sees her friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a Chintz exceeds Mohair.
We don’t know whether Henrietta, like Anne Northey, stitched her own furniture covers but her great niece, Henrietta Hotham, reveals some of their textile pursuits in a letter to her parents: ‘…you must get me a small knotting nedle, round at both Ends; and a Pound of the best thread for mine and my Aunts use. I wish you would get us some flax and then I shall amuse myself with the Spinning Wheel which I cannot yet get out of the Box’ adding ‘Aunt wants a Blue, and a green Gauze Handkerchief half of each will be big enough this hot weather; and a little lace to trim them’.