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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.

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