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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Syon House: Part Five

Having been to so many stately homes, I can now convincingly fling around architectural terms with the best of them and still have a vague idea as to what I am talking about. 

Thus, the Dining Room at Syon is graced with a screen of Corinthian columns at either end, placed behind apsidal recesses. The latter simply describes a semi-dome like effect. The Dining Room was finished in 1763. Robert Adam was to add Corinthian screens and apsidal recesses to the Library at Kenwood, when he was commissioned to remodel KenwoodHouse a few years later. However, whereas the Dining Room at Syon has a gold and cream colour scheme, the Library at Kenwood used a much more colourful palette. Likewise, the Dining Room at Syon has monochromatic paintings of scenes from Ancient Rome whereas those at Kenwood are polychromatic.

One unusual feature of the gilt and plasterwork ceiling is the lions’ heads projecting out of it. The lion is an emblem of the Percy family. The statues and busts placed in niches, painted to imitate red marble, include appropriately enough Bacchus the God of the wine harvest and merry making. The white marble fireplace continues the winemaking themes with carvings of grapes on the vine. The central panel on the chimneypiece depicts the Three Graces. High above the fireplace Robert Adam has immortalised in plaster Elizabeth Seymour, the first Duchess of Northumberland and facing her on the other wall is an image of her husband, Sir Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland. They had commissioned Robert Adam to remodel Syon House. Intriguingly Hugh inherited the Percy titles and estates through his wife and not in his own right. Elizabeth had become the sole surviving child and heir of the eldest son of the 6th Duke of Somerset after her brother died in 1744. Being but a mere female, efforts were made by her grandfather to deprive her of her birthright and instead pass it on to his other male grandchildren. He was thwarted in his efforts. Poor Lady Anne Clifford, living at Knole in the previous century, had fought a bitter battle for decades to secure her own birthright when a similar attempt was made to deprive her of her family estates. Luckily for Elizabeth she, unlike Lady Anne, did not have her father, husband and the King of England all ranged against her.

The Dining Room lacks a dining table. At Osterley Park the explanation was that trestle tables would be placed in the room prior to a meal and then removed afterwards. The Dining Room at Syon was designed to accommodate up to 60 guests at a time but even this proved insufficient in the early 20th century. Consequently, the family got into the habit of erecting marquees on the lawns outside and dining out there instead when large parties were thrown. By contrast, the state Dining Room at Brimstone Butterfly Towers can easily accommodate up to 4 guests at any one sitting, although the fourth guest is obliged to bring along their own chair if they would prefer not to dine on the floor. 

The Red Drawing Room had been packed with mayors on my first visit and I had given up as a hopeless cause any attempt to get my audio guide to operate in sequence to the rooms on the tour. As a result, I failed to realise the close connection between Syon House and the Stuart royal family in the 17th century. I was fully aware that two Tudor queens, Lady Jane Grey and Catherine Howard, had stayed at Syon. Or rather the latter was imprisoned here in the 16th century. In the following century, the younger children of the royal family were raised in the household of the 10th Earl of Northumberland whilst there father, King Charles I, was held captive by Parliament at nearby Hampton Court Palace. Despite the Earl siding with the Parliamentarians, the royal children remembered him kindly when the king’s eldest son, King Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660. The royal connection is commemorated with pictures of various members of the House of Stuart. Henrietta Maria, wife to the ill fated Charles I, is shown looking very pretty in blue silk and holding a pink rose in her hand. The Queen’s own niece Sophia, the future Electress of Hanover, was greatly shocked at how different Henrietta looked in real life compared to her flattering portraits. Far from being the beauty her official paintings suggested, Henrietta-Maria was, according to her niece, "a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders, and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort." In another portrait Henrietta’s daughter, also called Henrietta, is shown in a gown scattered with mouth wateringly large jewels and pearls, in marked contrast to her mother’s simpler gown. Henrietta-Maria’s eldest son, Charles II, is shown in a double portrait with his long suffering wife, Catherine of Braganza. Poor Catherine must have been as plain a pikestaff as the court painters of the time seem to have made no effort to turn her into a beauty as they had her mother-in-law.

Even without the Stuart paintings the Red Drawing Room would be fascinating in its own right thanks to the 239 individual medallions decorating the coffered ceiling. They had been inspired by the vaulted ceiling of the Salon in the 16th century Villa Madama in Italy. Other features of interest include the ivory panels inlaid with ormolu around the door frame and the pier tables, apparently inlaid with mosaics taken from the Baths of the Emperor Titus in Rome. I have never understood why Modern Europe embraced so heartily the language and culture of Ancient Rome but baulked at the idea of taking a daily bath or having a bathroom with plumbed in water installed in their homes until relatively recently.


The Red Drawing Room takes its name from the colour of the silk wall hangings. They are thought to have been rewoven in Spitalfields in the 1820s. I was surprised to discover that silk was still being woven at Spitalfields in London at such a late date. The district’s fortunes had undergone a dramatic decline since its late 17th and 18th century heyday. The rows of grand town houses built by prosperous silk merchants were fast becoming slums. I was once fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to go inside 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields. I say fortunate because it is rarely open and it is trying desperately hard to secure funding that would enable it to be open all year long. In the 18th century it had housed Huguenot silk weavers. In the 1860s Jewish refugees turned it into a synagogue. Now it is a museum re-telling the story of the different waves of immigrants who lived in this area up until the present day. The house and the synagogue are in a very fragile state and it is to be hoped that they can be saved. I also had the chance to explore the even more derelict rooms above the synagogue. One room became something of a cause célèbre in 1980 when a locked room was opened up for the first time since 1969. It has last been lived in by a certain David Rodinsky, a Jewish scholar. The room had suddenly and explicitly been abandoned to the extent of a pot of porridge being found on the stove and a half drunken mug of tea left on a table. What added to the mystery was that Rodinsky himself had seemingly vanished into thin air, there being no apparent trace of him after that date. The author Rachel Lichtenstein wrote a fascinating account of the event in her book “Rodinsky's Room,” which also resolves the mystery of what really happened to David Rodinsky. 

Another house in Spitalfields was transformed into a time capsule by the eccentric American Dennis Severs. Unlike 19 Princelet Street, Severs’ house at 18 Folgate Street is open on a regular basis and is well worth a visit. The way the late Mr Severs staged his house was mocked by historians at the time for being too theatrical and failing to adhere to rigorous academic standards. Now it can be seen as a template for many of the stately homes I visit today including the likes of Hampton Court Palace.

In the 1960s the red silk wall hangings in the Red Drawing Room were taken down, carefully cleaned and re-hung back to front. Under the windows some original fragments of the wall hangings survive to give and indication of how vivid they would have looked before their colours faded.

Leading off from the Red Drawing Room and partially concealed behind a screen, is the study of the 10th Duke who died in 1988. As befits its status the room is dominated by a large desk. It has a very masculine feel to it with mustard coloured silk hangings on the walls, paintings of Dutch landscapes and ships and a battered vintage Royal typewriter. What I took to be a triptych turned out to be an ornate travelling mirror. There was a fine ormolu and bronze timepiece from the 1820s on the mantelshelf depicting Apollo holding a lyre. I thought it was rather sad that the clock was silent. A room needs to echo to the constant tick-tock of an old clock, with the striking of a bell to announce the hours, especially one found in a stately home.   

In the 18th century the sexes would go their separate ways after they had dined: the men at Syon remained in the Dining Room whilst the women retired to the Red Drawing Room and the imposing Long Gallery. Remodelled by Robert Adam in the 18th century this was the original Tudor Long Gallery where, according to legend, Lady Jane Grey took the fateful decision to accept the throne of England in 1536. The kind of Tudor linenfold panelling found at Hampton Court and Sutton House was stripped out by Adam and replaced by neo-classical stucco work. Time has faded the once rich colours. Part of one wall has been restored to show how the colours might have looked originally. It seems the current Duchess has plans to restore the entire gallery, which is perhaps a pity as the current mellow colours possess a singular charm.

I fell into conversation with one of the guides and asked whether the Etruscan vases in niches were authentic. She was not sure and asked her colleague, who explained that they were designed by Wedgwood and based on original designs found at Pompeii. My last ever holiday abroad was near that doomed city. I wish I had taken a digital camera with me as I explored the ruins. But as I was on my own and as the Brimstone Butterfly was but a chrysalis in this author’s eye, I saw no need for such luxuries at the time. Now of course it would rank as an absolute necessity.

At either end of the Long Gallery are the so called Turret rooms. One closet contains wall paintings in the Chinese style by the 3rd Duchess, Charlotte Florentia, who had been a governess to the future Queen Victoria. I later visited the bedrooms of the then Princess Victoria and her mother on an upper floor.  A guide very kindly allowed me to examine at close quarters the ebony and ivory 17th century cabinet on display, even going so far as to open part of it up for me. In my experience such guides often take a genuine pleasure in imparting knowledge to visitors with a genuine interest. They are less enthusiastic about those visitors who adopt a more interactive approach to the house. When we returned to the Long Gallery my guide was growing more and more apprehensive as a small toddler tried to clamber atop an 18th century footstool. Even the presence of a sprig of holly failed to deter the child. Finally the guide had to summon the  child's French mother to keep a careful eye on her adventurous tot. The other Turret Room, with its exquisite stucco work and its pink, pale blue, white and gold colour scheme contained two 18th century tapestry chairs and a small table set out for a game of chest. Hanging from the domed ceiling was an 18th century mechanical song bird in a gilded cage. According to the guidebook the cage is furnished with a timepiece, the dial of which must, I assume, be on the base.  

A glance at my own timepiece tells me it is time I took a break for supper. When I return to the subject of Syon I will complete my tour of the house and the gardens.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Syon House: Part Four.


The double cube Great Hall seemed to have grown smaller rather than larger when the Brimstone Butterfly was next spotted at Syon, despite there being a notable dearth of people sporting ceremonial chains of office wandering around. 




As with his other commissions at Osterley Park and Kenwood House, Robert Adam drew his inspiration from the architectural traditions of the Ancient world. The entrance hall to a Roman villa of note would not have been complete without the addition of statues. Thus, busts of the Greek orator Demosthenes, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Greek philosopher Socrates and the Roman general Scipio Africanus are on prominent display in the Great Hall at Syon. Robert Adam also designed the plinths for the four antique statues of Roman men and women. Now that I had the time to read the labels attached to the statues I realised that my earlier assessment that the Apollo Belvedere, under the coffered apse, was made of marble was wrong. It is simply an 18th century plaster copy of the ancient marble original. So too was the statue of the Dying Gaul but this copy had been rendered in bronze. Legend has it that the bronze statue had been immersed in water for almost a decade to give it a pleasing patina of age. I had not appreciated before quite how handsome the Gaul was. He was naked except for a metal torque around his neck. His mortal wound had been caused by an injury to his upper chest. The more I gazed upon him the more I felt like the sculptor Pygmalion seeking to breathe life into the inanimate object of my affection. I was told by one of the guides that a certain member of the ducal family had been equally smitten with the statue in her youth.

As the doors to the inner courtyard were open I slipped outside. The plants were now in blossom and the garden looked prettier than ever. The moment of Arcadian bliss did not last as the rain began to pelt down and a sudden gust of wind forced one of the women guides to close the heavy wooden doors. This same guide kindly offered me a pen, after I had somehow managed to lose my own when I stepped out in the courtyard garden, despite retracing my steps.

There were 10 small wooden oak chairs dotted around the hall, 6 bearing the Order of the Garter motto: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" and the Percy family crest. All of them had sprigs of holly on the seat to deter the casual visitor from sitting down on them, a trick I had first witnessed at Southside House in Wimbledon. On the subject of holly, I was recently in the gardens of Brimstone Butterfly Towers ferociously cutting back the mid-19th century boundary hedge. I had been given a set of gardening tools by the Partridge and her siblings as a Christmas present and used them with gusto. To my delight I discovered that the holly tree, concealed within its depths, had produced berries, something I had never witnessed in our garden before.   

As I ascended the steps leading to the Ante Room at Syon House I noticed concealed doors on either side. It was the perennial problem for the upper classes of the 18th century: they wished to be surrounded by servants to cater to their every whim yet they also aspired to a far greater degree of personal privacy than their ancestors had ever known or expected.

I admit I had not taken to the gilded statues perched above the verde antico columns in the Ante Room even if they were covered in gold leaf. I was even less impressed to be told that some of the statues were thought to be Ancient Roman in origin. The usual suspects from Classical mythology were to be found including Bacchus and Mercury. Amongst the collection was a copy of the Venus de Medici which I had first come across at Hampton Court Palace and later seen a version atop a column in the gardens of Chiswick House. Initially I had found the overall effect to be distinctly gaudy. But my opinion has mellowed in the meantime. Having been to that apotheosis of unbridled Georgian flamboyance, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the Ante Room at Syon seemed positively sober by comparison.

The three marble heads of small Roman boys, displayed on the mantle shelf of the white and green fireplace, had thankfully not been gilded. I wondered later whether gilding had been reserved for statues which could only be viewed from a distance. My first encounter with such monstrosities had been in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace where gilded statues and busts had been placed in niches along the upper walls. The fireplace at Syon was decorated with fine carvings of rams’ heads, spears and axes. I was now sufficiently versed in such matters to recognise the winged goddess Nike riding in her chariot whilst holding aloft a laurel wreath. My classical knowledge failed me altogether when it came to the central plaque on the chimney piece. It depicted in bas relief a seated Roman or Grecian matron having her feet washed by a female servant. For some unknown reason the Roman matron bashfully hid her face within in the folds of her garment.

On either side of the doors leading to the Great Hall were displayed replica trophy panels of the emperors Augustus and Marcus Aurelius respectively depicting shields, helmets and quivers replete with bows. It struck me that the trophy panels at Syon along with those incorporated into the staircases at Ham House and Knole had been commissioned by men who, unlike the aforementioned emperors, were not known for their exploits on the battlefield. Like the gilding on the statues, such posturing was all for show. 

The whole expanse of the floor of the Ante Room had been decorated with Scagliola or imitation marble. The patterns in the floor were echoed in the gilt and plaster ceiling above. By chance, I discovered that Scagliola had been used to face the columns in the Ante Room too. My new found knowledge was gleaned from a fascinating newsletter by Hayles and Howe, who are experts in ornamental plasterwork and Scagliola. A few years ago they had been commissioned by clients in Denver Colorado to reproduce the interiors of Adam’s Library at Kenwood House and the Ante Room at Syon. In a parallel universe I would commission them to reproduce at Brimstone Butterfly Towers the Robert Adam ceilings I saw yesterday on my visit to the Duke of Wellington’s home in London, more of which anon. At present my funds would scare stretch to a tube of Polyfilla.

At one end of the Ante Room was a concealed door which had been left open. A flight of plain wooden stairs lead down to the service quarters and the Tudor undercroft. 

The Confectionary room was the only extant part of the kitchens now open to the public. Being a connoisseur of confectionary, I was intrigued by the paraphernalia devoted to what I consider to be one of the greatest of all arts. An apocryphal tale relates the story of an English Duke who was informed that he had to make strict economies in the running of his household, beginning with his foreign pastry chef. “May not a chap have even a biscuit?” the duke is alleged to have wailed. Nearly everything in the Confectionary Room, including the tables, Welsh dresser, ranges and ovens, all date from the 1820s. Just outside the room was the metal carcass of an 1869 Victoria Duplex Refrigerator or so it had been styled in a contemporary newspaper advert. Further along the corridor were pieces of embroidery with the names of George III and George IV and the arms of the ducal Percy Family worked into them. These pieces of material were displayed in a 4 piece Victorian folding wooden screen. When I later fell into conversation with one of the guides he told me he had reached the conclusion that they must have adorned ceremonial trumpets, as he could see no other purpose for them, given their size and shape. John Blanke, the "blacke trumpeter" who had been one of King Henry VIII's court musicians, would have been very able to resolve the matter in a trice.

Next to the Confectionary Room a locked door blocked the way to a service passage which had wooden cupboards built into to the walls and a delightful Georgian fanlight door at the far end. Though designed to be utilitarian there was something rather appealing about the modest service passage and the simple wooden flight of stairs which lead upstairs.With only the Confectionary Room now on public display I now appreciate why so many copper pots and pans from Syon House ended up on display at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton

As at Greenwich Palace, the stone undercroft had not been remodelled and so revealed its Tudor origins. Now it is serves as small museum chronicling the history of Syon from its establishment as one of the principal abbeys in Europe to its turbulent past as the private home and occasional prison of some of the key players in English history.


In my next post I shall continue with my progress through the state rooms and perhaps I shall find time in it to discuss the gardens, the jewel of which must be the ornate Victorian conservatory.  




Monday, 25 July 2011

Syon House Part Three: The Return.


Usually, when I visit a place I am left with a distinct mental impression of every room I venture into whether above or below stairs. This failed to happen after I paid a visit to Syon House in the august presence of the Aviatrix and a gaggle of more lowly mayors. Therefore, I resolved to return to Syon to remedy matters. This time I would be able to peruse my surroundings at leisure with no mob of mayors impeding my royal progress around the mansion. Moreover, I would also be able to get my bearings all of which is essential if I am to wander around the house in my mind’s eye, long after my visit had ended. Heavy rain was forecast, but as I had already taken some splendid images of the magnificent Victorian glasshouse, which I shall return to anon, it would not matter if inclement weather curtailed a stroll around the gardens. In addition, the forecast suggested there might be some sunny intervals in the afternoon. My new neighbour is keen to accompany me on one of my jaunts. Alas, she is not willing to endure a soaking even for the sake of my readership

I arrived at the gates to Syon Park when the heavens opened up yet again. It has not been a good year for my venerable straw hat. It languished yet again at home whilst I wore a more humble headscarf. In the grounds of the house I came across a blue plaque to the memory of Richard Reynolds, who had lived in the former abbey. He was executed at Tyburn in 1535 and his limbs were nailed to the abbey gates as a terrible warning to anyone else who defied Henry VIII.



Reynolds might possibly have recognised the stone monastery barn dating back to the 14th century. It is the oldest extant building at Syon. It was apparently significantly altered in the 16th century and had a thatched roof at one point in its long history. The thatch was replaced with tiles in the early 20th century. Colourful planters filled with geraniums and covered wicker seating made a striking and cheerful contrast to its more drab appearance a few months earlier.    

Reynolds was long dead by the time the ninth Earl built the Tudor archway during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth. The arch was restored in the late 20th century.



 Through the archway I came across the Dairy House. On my earlier trip with the Aviatrix we had not had time to see it as the house and gardens were closing for the day. It is a beautiful little dairy, even more fanciful than the one at Ham House with its terracotta wall panels by Joseph Gott, mimicking panels from Ancient Rome and the elegant floor tiles from the Wedgwood factory. The marble worktops with their dainty terracotta legs rival anything I have seen elsewhere.  Even Ham House lacked a pink marble balustrade enclosing as it were as an inner sanctum. Nor did it have busts of various worthies, ancient and modern, dotted around the place. But the single most extraordinary fact about the ornamental dairy house was that is was not built in the 18th century, when such follies were deemed the height of fashion amongst European nobility, anxious to indulge in a highly sanitised view of country life. Instead, it had been built by the 4th Duke of Northumberland during the 1850s. It did not supplant the original more mundane late 18th century working dairy which stood adjacent to it. Rather, a dairy maid would be hauled away from her duties in the everyday dairy in order to put on a show for the Duke’s guests, they being of too genteel a disposition to be expected to watch proceedings in the more humble building.
I was only able to view the late 18th brick stables from the exterior. But it seems the original drinking troughs, stalls, mangers and flooring has all been preserved inside. The adjacent 1820s riding school is notable for its unique iron framework roof. During the First World War adaptations were made to the floor to allow the riding school to be used as a makeshift hospital.

Having made an extended tour of the outhouses, I was keen to venture inside the mansion again. But as I made my way through a gateway I was stopped by members of the Richmond Archaeological Society. They asked if I would be interested in seeing the excavation being carried out on the lawn in front of the house, now that the annual Birbeck College dig had come to an end. The dig is focussed on a range of buildings which they think date from the early 17th century. I was shown some of the finds including roof tiles and part of a wine bottle with a grotesque face on it. The more they unearth, the harder the historians find it to pierce together a definitive answer as to the exact size and orientation of the great medieval abbey which had stood on this site until Henry VIII had it demolished. Under the fountain in the inner courtyard for example, monastic floor tiles have been found. Did this mean the original abbey extended within the footprint of the Tudor House? Or could it just be that the Tudors were a thrifty lot and reused building materials where they could?



The break in the rain allowed me to admire the two “pepper pot” lodges built by the 9th Earl, along with the Tudor archway named after him. One or other of them would make a charming home for the Brimstone Butterfly. At present they serve as staff accommodation. They are not identical as one of them is possessed of a concealed lower floor.
What is now the main entrance to Syon House would have been the back of the house in the Tudor era. Then the main mode of conveyance to the royal palaces and the city of London would have been by river. Poor Catherine Howard was dragged struggling from Syon to the covered barge moored by the riverside on her final journey to the Tower of London and execution in 1542. The Tudor mansion, which forms the core of the current Syon House, was built several years after Catherine’s demise. Therefore, it is impossible to know the precise location of where she was imprisoned for those desperate months leading up to her death.

Despite the gloomy weather and the history of tragic Tudor queens who had had left Syon House for the Tower, never to emerge again, I had quite a spring in my step as I ascended the stone staircase leading to the Great Hall.  As I did so I admired anew the ornate dragon light fittings on either side of the massive wooden doors. I then made my way inside, determined to spend the next few hours examining the place at leisure. I was curious to discover whether my initial impression of Syon House had changed in the interim.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Syon House Part Two


When the Aviatrix and the Brimstone Butterly set out for Syon House we first stopped at nearby Old Isleworth by the River Thames. The Aviatrix was keen to show me the London Apprentice pub but we did not have time to linger or indeed venture inside. The present building dates from the first half of the 18th century. However there was once a far older tavern on this site. According to tradition Henry VIII entertained Catherine Howard here and King Charles II dallied with his mistress Nell Gwynne. The Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell is also said to have visited the place. History does not record whether the arch Puritan Cromwell likewise brought along a mistress for an illicit assignation. But I was more intrigued by the pond once used to power the water-wheels of the mills, which had stood on this site in earlier centuries.

It whilst we were at Old Isleworth that the Aviatrix and I became aware of a cavalcade of exceedingly grand motor cars passing by us. I realised that one of them had to be the mayoral car for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I had been friends with a previous mayor and he had kindly offered me a lift back to Wimbledon after a party we had been to in Highgate on the other side of London. It seems he had never ventured south of the river unless chauffeured. As a consequence we got lost. I was hopeless at reading maps especially when the vehicle was in motion and he, being an old fogey, refused to have sat nav installed in his car. A good hour or so later than scheduled he dropped me off at my house and made his way back to the more familiar territory of Chelsea. Nevertheless, it had been extremely kind of him to make the effort, especially as he had a wreath laying ceremony early the next day. I first met him when the amateur choir the Partridge belonged to held a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank.  I must confess I was not enamoured of their choice of program so decided I would meet up with the Partridge for a light dinner beforehand and then claim to have got a ticket at the back of the auditorium. In reality I had no intention of going along and planned to slink off back home. But my plans were foiled by the man who would be mayor. He not only dined with us, but afterwards he insisted on escorting me to the ticket office in person so that I could get a seat next to his. On that first encounter he had this extraordinary habit of addressing me as if I were a public meeting.

As the Aviatrix and I walked into the grounds of Syon House we passed by the rather charming two little crenulated gatehouses built by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, whose marriage in the late 16th century had subsequently secured Syon House for the Percy family.

Further along the drive we could see a cluster of limousines disgorging their occupants wearing chains of mayoral office. It seems they had all been invited along to meet the Duchess of Northumberland for afternoon tea. Some of them seemed rather thrilled at the prospect as they hastily smoothed down their clothes before stepping into the Robert Adam designed Entrance Hall to hear an introductory speech.

Believing that they would not be long, the Aviatrix and I politely sat down on a stone bench at the back to admire our surroundings at leisure.

The Entrance Hall at Syon, unlike its contemporary counterpart at Osterley House, is double height in scale. Spying the unusual design of the black and marble flooring made me instantly realise that the hall had been the setting for interior shots in the 2007 BBC drama series “Cranford.” The hall’s imposing splendour served as the perfect foil for  Francesca Annis’s dauntingly regal Lady Ludlow.  The pattern on the floor is echoed in the coffered ceiling, a conceit also applied by Robert Adam at Osterley Park. The neo-classical theme is echoed by the antique marble statutes and busts of various worthies from the Classical World including Socrates and Livia, the wife of Caesar  Augustus, on plinths ranged around the hall. One end of the Entrance Hall is dominated by a statue of a mortally wounded Gaul in bronze, (a copy of a Roman original) its dark patina achieved by deliberately immersing the statue in water for almost a decade. At the other end, under the coffered apse, stands the white marble statue of the Apollo Belveder, a deity at the peak of his vitality and physical beauty. The stark contrast serves almost to mock the fallen Gaul in his final death throes. I am not sure of the exact colour scheme used in the hall but compared to elsewhere in the house it is distinctly restrained in tone,

Having listened to the audio guide on the Entrance Hall, it slowly dawned on the Aviatrix and me that the speeches were going to be interminable. We slipped out into the pleasant inner courtyard ringed with clipped Cypress trees, low lying boxed hedges and with a small fountain at its heart. At length we ventured back indoors but still the speeches carried on ad infinitum. We had not wished to interrupt proceedings and march up to where the speakers stood in front of the dying Gaul or stage a gladiatorial revolt and storm the entranceway to the rest of the mansion. Instead, we persuaded the guide to show us an alternative route around the house. The drawback of this strategy was that we were unable to get the audio-guide into sync with the rooms we visited. Moreover, we later found that our paths crossed from time to time with that of the mayoral party and their sheer numbers made it impossible for me to linger in some rooms quite as long as I would have liked. Thus I must render my apologies in advance for a perambulation of Syon House done out of sequence to the usual tour and at more of a gallop than a stately progress.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Syon House: Part One (Revised)


Several weeks ago the Aviatrix invited the Brimstone Butterfly along to Syon House. It has a great deal in common with Osterley Park in that the original house was built by a prominent Tudor courtier and   remodelled in the 18th century by the celebrated architect Robert Adam. But Syon House has an even more venerable history than Osterley Park, for it was once the site of a great Bridgettine abbey. According to Daniel Lysons, in his Environs of London published in 1810, Osterley Manor had even been owned for a short while by the abbess and convent at Syon in the 1530s.
St Birgitta wearing the robes and headdress of her order
Syon Abbey was founded by King Henry V but it was actually built by his son King Henry VI in 1426. The mystic Birgitta Birgersdotter had founded the order of nuns and monks named after her in the previous century. A Swedish noblewoman, Birgitta had married and had fours sons and four daughters by her husband, all of whom survived past infancy which was a miracle in itself given the horrendous mortality rates for medieval children. After her husband died in 1344, Birgitta was able to devote herself wholly to a religious life. Within 20 years of her death in 1373 such was her reputation for piety Birgitta had been made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

The redoubtable Time Team set up an archaeological dig at Syon Park in 2004 to try and determine the location and dimensions of the lost Syon Abbey. To their surprise they discovered that it was far larger than the chapel at Eton or at King’s College Cambridge, both of which had also been built by Henry VI. Since 2004 Birbeck College, part of the University of London, has been carrying out further digs at the site during the summer months. These are open to amateur archaeologists as well as the professional. The Partridge once invited me to join her on an archaeological dig at the Roman auxiliary fort at Vindolanda in Northumberland in England.  Unfortunately I had been obliged to decline her kind offer owing to conflicting commitments. Digs at Vindolanda are funded in part by enthusiastic amateurs who pay for the privilege of taking part. The Partridge proudly showed me pictures of the finds that she and her sister had unearthed on previous summers at Vindolanda. Though not quite in same league as the horde of late Roman silverware found at Mildenhall, nevertheless each find has afforded her enormous pleasure. They have also served to add to the overall knowledge of the daily life of the men and women who had once lived there so many centuries ago.

Vindolanda would have gradually fallen into ruins after the Romans left Briton to defend their beleagued empire. Syon Abbey by contrast suffered a much more dramatic change in it fortunes.  As one of the richest religious houses in England it was an irresistible target for closure under King Henry VIII’s campaign of suppressing monasteries. But he also had highly personal reasons for seeking the abbey’s destruction. During Henry’s reign the Confessor-General of the English Bridgettine house, Richard Reynolds, had invited the nun Elizabeth Barton to Syon House. Elizabeth had gained notoriety as a mystic and prophesier. She incurred Henry’s undying hatred when she openly preached that his decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, would soon result in his own death. Her prophecy remained unfufilled and.Elizabeth was executed in 1533. Having recanted  she was spared the full horrors of a traitor’s death, being hanged as opposed to burnt alive at the stake. Richard Reynolds was not so fortunate. Refusing to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy over the pope he was hung, drawn and quartered in 1535  with his severed limbs nailed to the gates of Syon Abbey as a dreadful warning of what happned to those who set themselves up in opposition against the King. Four years later the abbey at Syon was suppressed and the remaining monks and nuns expelled. The nuns chose to keep together. Consequently, they were able to briefly re-establish their order at Syon in 1557 during the reign of Henry’s eldest daughter, Queen Mary. The nuns left Syon for the last time when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558. They moved to Portugal and in the late 19th century returned to England, but not to Syon House.

 
At their community in Devon the Birgittines have a sole poignant reminder of their once great abbey in the shape of a fragment of a 15th century carved pinnacle stone. It shows the abbey at the height of its Gothic splendour. Time Team claim that the stone would have been mounted on the gates of the abbey, the very same gates upon which Richard Reynolds’s limbs had been placed after his execution. 
Catherine Howard
Was it a sign of gallows humour that Henry VIII chose to imprison his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, in Syon Abbey in 1541, two years after the order had been closed? St Birgitta was an exemplary example of female rectitude. How very different from the doomed Catherine, whose scandalous private life both before and after she had married the king, exposed her to the full fury of her husband’s vengeance. The King's orders for Catherine to be conveyed to Syon are recorded in the state papers of the Privy Council for 11th   November 1541. Interestingly her prison is styled Syon House, although the Tudor mansion had yet to be built on the site:

"The King, having considered their letters, wills them to persevere in attaining knowledge of the truth and to execute his pleasure before signified to them; foreseeing that they take not from the Queen her privy keys till they have done all the rest. She is to be removed to Syon House, and there lodged moderately, as her life has deserved, without any cloth of estate, with a chamber for Mr. Baynton and the rest to dine in, and two for her own use, and with a mean number of servants, as in a book herewith. She shall have four gentlewomen and two chamberers at her choice, save that my lady Baynton shall be one, whose husband shall have the government of the whole house and be associated with the Almoner."

On the  13th February 1542 the French ambassador was writing to his king, Frances I  relating all he had heard about Catherime Howard's fate: 
"Her execution was expected this week, for last night she was brought from Syon to the Tower, but as she weeps, cries, and torments herself miserably, without ceasing, it is deferred for three or four days, to give her leisure to recover, and "penser au faict de sa conscience."

Not to be outdone the Spanish Ambassador Chapuys wrote to the Emperor Charles V of Catherine's forcible removal from Syon House ealier that month:
"Forgot, when writing on the 10th, of the Queen's trial and condemnation, to mention that after the condemnation passed against her in Parliament, the King, wishing to proceed with moderation, had sent to her certain Councillors and others of the said Parliament, to offer her to come and defend her own case in the Parliament. This she declined, submitting entirely to the King's mercy and owning that she deserved death. Some days later, on the afternoon of the 10th, she was, with some resistance, conveyed by river to the Tower. The lord Privy Seal, with a number of Privy Councillors and servants went first in a great barge; then came the Queen with three or four men and as many ladies, in a small covered barge; then the Duke of Suffolk, in a great barge, with a company of his men. On their arrival at the Tower, the lords landed first; then the Queen, in black velvet, and they paid her as much honour as when she was reigning."
Chapuys goes on to add: "the King has been in better spirits since the execution, and during the last three days before Lent there has been much feasting." Henry VIII was evidently not the kind of man to allow the beheading of a wife to come between him and a good meal.  

Five years after Catherine Howard was brought struggling out of Syon House to be rowed to the Tower of London, the coffin of Henry VIII lay in the abbey church overnight. The following day it would be taken from Syon by barge on its final journey to Windsor Castle in 1547. There is an apocryphal story that Henry's bloated corpse leaked and his bodily fluids seeped out of the coffin onto the ground  were they were promptly devoured by a dog. This legend seems to vindicate a prophecy that Henry would suffer the same fate as the Biblical King Ahab, who had likewise incurred God’s wrath. Modern scholars contend that this was probably just wistful thinking on the part of Henry’s enemies. It is highly unlikely that his coffin would have been left unguarded let alone that a stray dog would be allowed to wander around the vicinity. 

Henry’s son, Edward VI, was a minor when he came to the throne. Syon Abbey had passed into Crown hands following the Dissolution but now came in the ownership of the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, who was the new King’s tmaternal uncle. Seymour built himself a magnificent Renaissance mansion on the site of the former abbey. The recycling of the abbey fabric led to a certain degree of confusion for Time Team in 2004. They had assumed that the Tudor mansion had been built directly on top of the demolished Abbey. More recent research has indicated that the Tudor builders simply reused the material from the demolished abbey across the way for the foundations of their new building.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset

Thomas Seymour. Lord High Admiral
Being uncle to the king might have had its perks but it also had its dangers. King Edward VI clearly saw himself as a Tudor rather than as a Seymour. He truly was a chip of the old executioner’s block when he signed first the execution warrant for his younger Seymour uncle, Thomas, in 1549 and then  the warrant for Edward in 1552.

Edward Seymour’s death paved the way open for John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland to acquire Syon House. One of his sons, Robert Dudley, was to become the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, having shared her imprisonment in the Tower of London. Robert’s brother, Guildford, also became involved with a Tudor queen but with more fateful consequences. Shortly before Edward VI’s death, the young king had bequeathed the succession to Lady Jane Grey rather than to either of his two half-sisters. As he had already proved by the treatment of his two maternal uncles, Edward set little store by family ties. In the month before Edward changed his will, the 16 year old Jane had been married off to the Duke of Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley. According to tradition, Lady Jane was at Syon House in 1553 when she was persuaded by her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, to accept the terms of the late King Edward’s will and agree to set off for the Tower of London to be proclaimed Queen of England. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Jane Grey would suffer the same fate as Catherine Howard. Like that other tragic Tudor queen, Jane Grey left Syon House for the Tower, where she too would end her days being beheaded on Tower Green.
Henry Percy. 9th Earl of Northumberland
Syon House once more reverted to the Crown. In the late 16th century it came into the possession of the Percy family through the marriage of Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, to one Dorothy Devereux. Like Lady Jane Grey and Catherine Howard before him, Henry Percy also wound up imprisoned in the Tower of London accused of High Treason. He had been implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. But, unlike the Tudor queens he was eventually freed from the Tower. He had to pay a heavy fine but it was not so ruinous that he was unable to keep Syon House, which has  remained within his family ever since.