Monday, 1 August 2011

Syon House: Part Six. House and Gardens

At one time it was the height of fashion to paste prints directly onto the walls of a room. A fine example of this practice can be seen at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at Kew, where a collection of prints by the 18th century artist Hogarth has been glued on to the walls of a ground floor chamber. Fashions change and the prints so lovingly pasted on to the walls of the Print Room at Syon House by one Duchess were unceremoniously removed by another Duke. Now only the name remains to remind visitors of how the room was once decorated.

The prints have been replaced by portraits of those associated with the house in one shape or other. They include Edward Seymour, who was both Lord Protector Somerset and uncle to the young Tudor king, Edward VI. Somerset built the original Tudor house at Syon which was subsequently remodelled by Robert Adam in the 18th century. As a key figure at the Tudor court, Somerset’s life was destined to be turbulent. Nor was his private life any less tumultuous. His first marriage was annulled. Believing his wife, Catherine Fillol, to have been unfaithful and her children sired by another, he cut her sons out of their inheritance and passed his estates and titles onto the children by his second wife, Anne Stanhope. Catherine had the last laugh. By 1750s Anne’s descendants had died out and the titles and estates finally reverted back to the descendants of Catherine Fillol. Edward’s portrait is placed between his two wives.
The Streatham Lady Jane

Next to the warring Seymour family is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I sporting her usual disdainful expression. Above her is another portrait of a young Tudor woman who some claim to be of Queen Elizabeth whilst still a princess. Others say it is a portrait of Lady Jane Grey, who ruled England for 9 days in 1553 before being toppled and eventually executed by Queen Mary. Nowadays the only widely acknowledged image of Lady Jane Grey is a contemporary copy of a portrait painted during her lifetime. It was found in Streatham of all places, a suburb of London that no longer enjoys the finest reputation as a place for the arts. It was in Streatham that the Thrale family had a mansion in the 18th century. Their close friend the celebrated Dr Samuel Johnson was such a regular visitor he had his own permanent room in the Thrale’s country seat in what was then rural Streatham.
Lady Katherine Grey and son
Another portrait at Syon is of Jane’s younger sister, Lady Katherine Grey. Her life was in many respects as tragic as Jane’s. She had incurred the wrath of Queen Elizabeth I by having a son by the Lord Protector’s son, another Edward Seymour, whom she had married in secret. The two ended up in the Tower of London where Katherine became pregnant for a second time. As a potential heir to the throne and with her proven fecundity Katherine was seen as a direct threat to the unmarried Elizabeth. As a consequence Elizabeth had the hapless Katherine placed under permanent house arrest until her early death at the age of 27 and her children taken from her. To further squash any chance of Katherine or her children making a claim on the throne of England, Elizabeth Tudor had Katherine’s marriage annulled and her children declared illegitimate. Just like her contemporary Catherine Fillol, time worked Katherine Grey a form of posthumous revenge. Her descendant, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, would go on to marry the future King George VI and so give birth to the second Queen Elizabeth of that name.

I was amused to see a small print of the 6th Duke of Somerset, nicknamed the “proud duke” because of his inordinate vanity, relegated to a very minor position by the side of the fireplace. How it would have pricked his pompous self-regard to be thus treated by posterity.

There were two ebony and pietra dura cabinets on display in the Print Room. Pietra dura refers to the art of applying cut and highly polished stones to create a decorative finish on an object. I am sure it is a highly skilled art form but the resulting effect has little appeal to me, not that I am ever likely to be in the position of handling let alone owning such a cabinet.

I am sure that certain rooms were closed when I first went to Syon as a result of the mayoral multitudes. This time I was able to see the Duchess’ Sitting Room. It is suitably grand with its ornate gilt mirror, 18th century armchairs and paintings but it did not strike me as being particularly cosy.

By contrast, the Green Drawing Room was blessed with the kind of chairs and squashy blue sofa I could imagine slouching in, as well as various period chairs which would oblige one to sit up straight. The former seating reflects the fact that the Green Drawing Room is still used by the present ducal family. The room also contains a grand piano for when the family fancy a sing-song together. I felt a sense of immense satisfaction when I correctly identified from a distance a portrait of William III above a door frame. The guide was only able to confirm the fact after searching through her extensive catalogue. At that moment the Brimstone Butterfly felt almost as smug as the Proud Duke.

The Private Dining Room, unlike the State Dining Room, is furnished with a dining table, Victorian in origin. Its ceiling, like that of the Green Drawing Room, was remodelled in the 19th century which is probably why I didn’t much care for it, preferring the infinitely more delicate and elegant Robert Adam ceilings I came across at Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington and more of which anon.

Fed up with hordes of servants traipsing through the principal chambers in order to reach a specific room, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland added a service corridor to this part of the house in the 1830s. The corridor is now known as the Oak Passage on account of the Tudor wainscot panelling on display, thought to have come from another Percy family home.  The walls of the Oak Passage are crammed with paintings of kings and queens but my attention was caught by the portrait of the 17th century actress and courtesan Mary Davies.
Mary Davies after Sir Peter Lely

Mary Davies was one of the many mistresses of Charles II. She presented her royal lover with a daughter in 1673, who for some inexplicable reason was styled Lady Mary Tudor. Lady Mary’s papa had spent a good part of his life in exile following the execution of his own father, Charles I, and the establishment of a Commonwealth in England. He was determined never to be obliged to go on his “wanderings” again. His brother, James, lacked Charles’ well honed instinct for political survival. Consequently, within three years of his own accession to the throne, James was ousted and forced into permanent exile. His departure was to have disastrous consequences for two of Lady Mary’s sons. They joined the court in exile and became embroiled in various plots to restore the Stuarts to the throne. But, like their paternal great-grandfather, King Charles I, their efforts were doomed to end at the hands of the axe-man.

Lady Mary Tudor’s mother Mary, or Moll Davies, was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys and engaged in a ferocious rivalry with fellow actress Nell Gwynne for the king’s affections. Mary Davies would have been most gratified had she been able to take a peek in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the 7th March 1666. He wrote:

“saw “The English Princesse, or Richard the Third;” a most sad, melancholy play, and pretty good; but nothing eminent in it, as some tragedys are; only little Mis. Davis did dance a jig after the end of the play, and there telling the next day’s play; so that it come in by force only to please the company to see her dance in boy’s ‘clothes; and, the truth is, there is no comparison between Nell’s dancing the other day at the King’s house in boy’s clothes and this, this being infinitely beyond the other.”  

Mary Davies would have been less than pleased when Nell arranged for a strong laxative to be slipped into Mary’s drink shortly before she was due to entertain the king in private. Unfortunately for Mary it was not only a tremendous outpouring of love with which she showered her sovereign lord that night. Their relationship never recovered but the canny Mary was set up for life. 

I have very little interest in porcelain so it was not the huge 19th century vase from the Sèvres factory,  a personal gift from a King of France to the Nortumberlands, that caught my eye but the 18th century brown sedan chair with porters' poles attached. It still retained its original silk curtains.There was a time when the Brimstone Butterfly was sorely tempted to buy a similar sedan chair, which she had long admired in a local bric-a-brac shop. Were it not for the fact that the two poles would never have fitted inside my flat, I would be writing this whilst enthroned within my sedan chair.

As I made my way up the stone Principal Staircase I noticed that the lower part of the banisters had a distinct wobble.

On the upper floors a number of bedrooms were on display. One, along the Nursery Passage, was styled for an Edwardian gentleman, though a current member of the ducal family remembers it as a nusery. The other had featured in the film Gosford Park and was used as the bedroom of Kristin Scott-Thomas’ character, the fictional Lady Sylvia McCordle. The peach bed drapery, hangings and window curtains were all left behind by the film company. The ceilings of both bedrooms were in a state of disrepair on account of rainwater leaking in from the roof. The leads on the roof need to be replaced to prevent further damage. Around the corridor was a bathroom, compete with commode and roll top bath and other such paraphernalia.

Along a nearby corridor and up a small flight of stairs can be found the bedrooms used by Queen Victoria and her mother when Victoria was still a princess and the then Duchess of Northumberland acted as her governess. I rather liked the canopied beds, which have an elegance lacking in furnishings found later in Victoria’s reign. Both Victoria and her mother’s bedrooms looked out over the surrounding parkland. The other bedrooms overlooked the inner courtyard. A guide explained that the state rooms were designed to look outwards, whereas the private family rooms were designed not to be overlooked and thus afforded greater privacy.

My second tour of the house completed I returned down the Principal Staircase, wobbled the lower banister again and made my way out into the Great Hall, where I found the guides getting ready to close up the house for the day. They were not best pleased with one comment left in the visitors’ book. A man, styling himself as an expert on such matters, had written of his disgust that 19th century furniture had been displayed alongside  furniture from the 18th century in a room designed by Robert Adam. As well as being extremely rude, the foolish man failed to take into account the fact that Syon House is not a museum but still very much a family home. It would be absurd for them to preserve everything in aspic and pretend that changes had never been made to the house. Taken to its logical conclusion Syon House ought never to have been remodelled by Robert Adam in the 18th century as surely that was a scandalous betrayal of its Tudor origins.

One way or another I had spoken to all or nearly all of the guides on duty that day. They had been curious as to why I was taking such copious notes and walking around the rooms at such a remarkably slow pace. I love to soak up the atmosphere of a room, especially if I find myself, as I do from time to time, the only person present. I had already mentioned my blog to one or two of the guides as I made my progress around the mansion.  When I returned to the front desk to hand in my audio guide, the flesh and blood guides made me promise to mention them in my post. Although I cannot recall all their names, I would like to thank them for the time they spent chatting to me and sharing their considerable knowledge of Syon House.
By now it was too late for me to stroll around the gardens. Fortunately, I had been able to wander around them with the Aviatrix on my earlier visit and we had been favoured by excellent weather. The Great Conservatory was built for the 3rd Duke of Northumberland in the 1820s. It is a delightful structure of stone, iron and glass. It is now more often used to host functions such as receptions rather than operate as a working greenhouse. 

One of the pavilions contains a fishpond. I did not have time on either occasion to explore the other pavilion.
Outside the pavilion a giant wisteria was invading the terrace like some alien monster from a B movie. The gardens provide a charming contrast to the house and visitors would be wise to factor in a stroll around them on any visit to Syon House.
As I was looking through some old digital images today I came across a picture I had taken of Syon House from across the River Thames at Kew when the Aviatrix and I had last visited Kew Palace together. “We must pay a visit to Syon House at some stage,” she insisted. It has us taken us quite a number of years to achieve our ambition but the wait had been worth it.


  1. I've enjoyed your Syon house posts very much, Butterfly. A few things strike me:
    how lovely to be the only one there, to be able to immerse one's self in the atmosphere;
    how well-informed and kind the guides are;
    how strange and wonderful it must be to live in a home like this one, knowing the tourists will troop through while you're away;
    how pleased I am that people do still live there and it's not a mothballed museum.

    Thanks so much for all the details and lovely photos.

  2. Thanks Petrea,
    When great houses like Syon were first built the families that lived there enjoyed little in the way of privacy. It was common to share their bedrooms with servants. Thomas Culpepper, who was accused of committing adultery with Katherine Howard had slept in the same room as her husband, King Henry VIII, when he had been the latter’s groom of the bedchamber. Only Russian oligarchs can afford to live in a house like Syon nowadays and not have to worry about making it pay its way. Besides, I can’t feel too sorry for the ducal family as they have also been living at Alnwick Castle (the second largest in the country) in Northumberland for the past 700 years (used for location shooting in Harry Potter films). Syon House is very much a London pied a terre


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