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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.