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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Syon House Part Two

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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,
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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.