Syon House

Syon House is one if the venues listed in the article in the December issue of BBC History magazine as part of their coverage of Amanda Vickery's BBC Two program "At Home with the Georgians."  The Percy family, now dukes of Northumberland have lived at Syon House for many years. To follow the fortunes of the Percy family is to travel the twists and turns of British history.  From their arrival with William the Conqueror in the 11th century, they held a stronghold at Alnwick Castle in far Northumberland and frequently ran into conflicts with the English kings.  Because of their support for Mary Queen of Scots, they were commanded to live in the south, at their property at Petworth in Sussex.  There were many periods of imprisonment in the Tower for various earls over the centuries.

Syon House had its ups and downs as well. It sits on the banks of the Thames across from Kew Gardens. Built in 1550 by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector during the short reign of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, the property had been a very wealthy nunnery with abundant fertile lands and a fine location. The name, Syon, is a form of Zion, and is pronounced SZEYE-un, a mix of the two words.

In its first few centuries, Syon seemed to exist under a dark cloud. Lord Somerset died on the scaffold before it was finished; Lady Jane Grey resided here; it served as a prison for the children of Charles I for a time. In the picture above, note the very dry brown of the usually parsley-green lawn -- summer drought a few years ago when I last visited.

Syon came to the Percy family through the marriage of Henry Percy (1564- 1632) to Lady Dorothy Devereux (d. 1619), a sister of Robert, Earl of Essex, a favorite of Elizabeth I.  From a previous marriage, Lady Dorothy owned the lease to the valuable Syon estate.  When James I came to the throne, he gave Syon outright to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland.  In 1605 the 9th earl himself landed in the Tower, where he lived for sixteen years, improving his estates and studying scientific topics from his prison.  He was known as the Wizard Earl for his many interests in science and the occult.  His wife Dorothy regularly sent him baskets of fruits from the Syon orchards.


More about the family later.  When architect and designer Robert Adam began his work at Syon in 1764, it was still basically a Tudor mansion looking much as it had when first built in 1547, a courtyard house that offered many challenges to bring up to  18th century taste..

Following  a carefully designed route through Capability Brown’s Park, through a monumental portico, one enters the Great Hall. In his halls, Adam favored carefully muted colors, neutrals to underline the importance and dignity of the house. The statues are copies of ancient Roman and Greek works. In the fashion of the day, well-made copies of ancient art were more valued than original art by contemporary artists. The dark figure of the Dying Gaul is a bronze casting which cost 300 pounds in 1773. The Apollo with arm outstretched is the familiar figure of the Apollo Belvedere, often copied in late 18th century interiors. The apse in which Apollo stands is a design element Adam used frequently, with its contrast of round to the rectangular.

The visitor experiences a  dramatic contrast is experienced stepping into the Ante-Room.  From subdued serenity, one enters the flashy extravagence of the height of the Roman Empire.  The floor is scagliola (composition of ground marble, plaster and glue often seen on tabletops) in brilliant colors, perfectly preserved and highly polished.  Some of the marble columns were found in the Tiber River in Rome and brought to Syon.  Others are copies, also made of scagliola.  The columns serve to square off the room size and to provide bases for the gilded statues, all reproductions of ancient figures.  It is difficult to underestimate the dazzling effect of standing in this room, which I am tempted to describe as gaudy, though it also has a unity of color and beauty that actually give it a different but equally impressive dignity as the Great Hall.

After the brilliant colors of the ante room, the dining room is almost restrained in its gilded elegance. From the Ante-Room, on the corner of the house, one steps into the ivory and gold magnificence of the Dining Room, a perfect example of classic Adam style.  Columns, apses, antique statues, and gilt combine with the rich wooden flooring in a pleasing pattern.  Adam rarely used soft materials in his eating rooms because carpets, curtains, tapestries and other hangings could absorb food odors.  Cleverly concealed in the doorways are compartments holding the dining tables, which were set up for meals and removed for dancing or other activities.  Some of the statue bases may conceal chamberpots, which, according to guides at other houses, were used by the men once the ladies had withdrawn after the meal.  All this while carrying on running conversations, apparently.

 The Red Drawing Room was described by Adam as a buffer to the real Withdrawing Room for the ladies, which was in the next chamber, the Gallery,  now the Library.  Perhaps the ladies needed such protection from the goings-on of those men!  The walls are of red Spitalfields silk. The ceiling of diamonds and octagons contrasts painted medallions with gilded banding.

 Syon eventually was part of the fortune of Lady Elizabeth Percy, at age 3 in 1670, the greatest heiress in England. She was widowed twice as a mere child and at fifteen, married Charles, 6th Duke of Somerset, who assumed the family name of Percy. Her granddaughter, another Lady Elizabeth Percy, was given Syon by her father in 1748.

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
She was the wife of Sir Hugh Smithson, a Yorkshire baronet whose family had once been haberdashers in London. Sir Hugh “revivified” the Percy estates, particularly the coal resources of their Northumberland property. After holding many important offices, he was created 1st Duke of Northumberland (d. 1786), and hired Robert Adam to remodel three of his houses: Alnwick Castle, Northumberland House in London (demolished in 1874), and Syon.

Smithsonian Red Castle,
Washington, D.C.
Although the 1st duke was supposedly devoted to his wife, he fathered at least one illegitmate son, James Smithson (1765-1829), who left more than one hundred-thousand pounds sterling to the USA, thus becoming the father of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The 2nd Duke of Northumberland had served in the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence before he succeeded to the title.   The 3rd duke, who succeeded in 1817, rebuilt the walls of the house in Bath stone, and built the conservatory.  He entertained “lavishly” at Syon during the reign of William IV.  He was succeeded by his brother Algernon in 1847.  Their descendants today still live at Syon, the family of the 11th Duke, Henry Alan Walter Richard Percy.
The Long Gallery was intended by Adam for the use of the ladies.  It is 136 feet long with a width and height of only 14 feet, the Tudor room used for exercising.  Adam solved the size and shape problem by softening the colors to pastel mauves and greens, installing shallow bookcases and clustering the tapestry-upholstered furniture in what we would call conversation groups.  There is a unity of design elements as well, with decorative swags on the walls, flat pilasters separating the bookshelves, and a pleasing pattern of geometric shapes, as in the ceiling.   When I visited this room, I found it astonishingly beautiful, yet comfortable.  As I gazed at the titles on the shelves, the Duke himself came by, showing the collection to a visitor he found of more importance than me, sadly.   I’ve often regretted not asking for his autograph on my guidebook.  Wonder what he would have said? This room is often seen in films, its pastel blue-greens and lovely ceiling is not only vintage Adam but the height of elegance. 

At the far end of the library, there is a little closet, once the site of the corner spiral staircase, now long gone.  In this little room, decorated in delicatre pinks and grays, hangs a birdcage holding a mechanical bird which spreads his wings and warbles on the hour.  The bottom of the cage is the clock's face, not a particularly practical place to put it, if you ask me.   It is known as one of Adam’s conceits.  Nevertheless, the "closet" serves the role of early closets for kings and dukes -- a private room holding favorite collections and offering the closest thing to privacy a great personage could experience.  Ah, the trials and tribulations of fame and fortune!

The great conservatory outside is a Victorian addition and now contains a commercial greenhouse and garden center.  Many a Londoner comes to buy Busy Lizzies every spring.

Syon House has a fine website here. The house and park can be visited between mid-March and the end of October. From London Waterloo Station, take the train to Kew Bridge, then go by bus.  Or grab a taxi.  It is a worthwhile visit!

Coming soon: Spencer House

Labels: ,