Syon Park is the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Set in a such a splendid park, visitors have difficulty realizing the estate is a mere nine miles from Charing Cross Station. Syon doesn’t show up on the usual roster of recommended houses, as it’s still privately owned and open during fairly restricted times. I was inspired to visit from the luscious pictures and beguiling description in Great English Interiors.
Originally Syon Abbey, whose foundation stone was laid by Henry V in 1415, it was the only Bridgettine house in England. A little more than a century later, the Abbey had reached a position of great influence and importance, enjoying close ties to the Tudor dynasty.
Hampton Court Palace was across the river at Richmond, and there were close links between the Abbey and Henry VIII. However, as Henry’s dispute with Rome over his wish to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, gathered momentum, the priests and nuns of Syon fell into disfavour. One of the priests, Richard Reynolds, was executed for treason in 1535 by the usual gruesome method at the time, namely hanging, drawing and quartering.
Syon was one of the last religious communities to be dissolved, and the property reverted to royal control. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, was confined at Syon prior to her execution in 1542. You may know the way of keeping track of Henry VIII’s wives: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. She was the second “Beheaded”.
Henry VIII finally went the way of all flesh in 1547 (not before time, frankly). His funeral cortege rested at Syon on the journey from London to Windsor, and his bloated corpse famously exploded there overnight.
Syon then passed to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was in the fortunate (?) position of Protector to Henry VIII’s only male heir, the sickly child Edward VI (son of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour), and though still a minor, was now King of England. The Duke set about building a new, grand house, which is essentially what stands today. Things didn’t turn out so well for the Duke of Somerset, however. Tudor times were rife with political intrigue and backstabbing; he was accused of plotting against the Crown and he, in turn, was executed in 1532.
Syon was acquired by one of the Duke of Somerset’s rivals, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, whose son, Lord Guilford Dudley, had married Lady Jane Grey, great-granddaughter of King Henry VII. This came at a pivotal point in Tudor history. The Crown was “in play” at the time. The sickly young King Edward VI had died, and his elder sister, Mary Tudor (daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon) was set to inherit the throne. Mary, however, was a Catholic. Recall that Henry had divorced her mother in the teeth of the opposition of the Catholic Church, and the subsequent Reformation had dragged England into a Protestant religion, though there were plenty of Catholics who were itching to see their power, er, religion, restored. Lady Jane Grey was a Protestant. Only sixteen at the time, and heavily under the influence of her elders, she was “offered the Crown”, conveyed to London and proclaimed Queen. Nine days later she was deposed by the Catholic Mary Tudor and executed the following year on the Green at the Tower of London.
Speaking of strife, in an attempt to re-establish Roman Catholicism, Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary) caused over 280 religious dissenters to be burned at the stake during her five-year reign. After Mary’s death in 1558, the Protestant/Catholic tables reversed once more. Elizabeth I, Mary’s younger half-sister and successor (daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, the first “beheaded”), turned the tide back to Protestantism. Talk about religious whiplash! Makes your head spin, if you’re lucky enough to still have one.
Now we move to the Percy Family, more specifically the Earls, later Dukes, of Northumberland. Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, acquired Syon in 1594 through a leasehold granted to him by Queen Elizabeth I.
The Percy family symbol is the statant lion with its tail extended. I had to look up “statant” – it means having all four paws on the ground, as opposed to a rampant lion, which is up on its hind legs. The King of Beasts is often used in heraldry and signifies courage, nobility, royalty, strength, stateliness and valour. Quite a lot to load onto one poor old cat, upright or with all paws on the ground.
This fellow stands on the East front of the house, and I was able to snap his photo through a window on the second floor.
The Percy family estates also include Alnwick Castle, shown below, which actually is in Northumberland. Pronounced “Annick”, you may recognize this castle as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as many of the Quidditch scenes were filmed in its courtyard.
My sense is Percy family favoured one style of architectural elevation. It’s easy to see the similarities between Alnwick (above) and Syon (below), though Syon looks more like a faux castle on a Grade B movie set than anything else. Perhaps its the paucity of windows? In any event, it’s truly horrid. I didn’t take a picture of it, as I could not find a decent angle, no matter what I did. The picture below is a screenshot from the website.
The front cover of the guide book has a lovely, romanticized picture of the house, shown below. It’s an aerial shot with lots of misty lighting. In reality and up close? Not so much. I gather it was not always thus. It began as a red brick structure with white stone trim, but the Victorian era left its mark with a cladding of Bath Stone in the mid 19th century, frankly not an improvement.
The charm of Syon resides in its interiors, the parkland and the lovely conservatory, which was built in the 1820s by Hugh, the third Duke (1817-1847) who continued the development of the plant collection the previous two dukes had begun.
Syon’s website tells us: “At Syon, the commission for the new Conservatory was given to Charles Fowler, an architect who specialised in large industrial buildings; in his use of the new metalworking technologies being developed in the English Midlands, he spanned the twin disciplines of architecture and engineering. At Syon, he created a building whose delicate structure was combined with a neo-classical elevation on a Palladian model.
Backed by the huge range of growing houses in the newly-built nursery, the Great Conservatory was filled with exotic plants from all corners of the world. Thus there were “Cape” plants from South Africa, “New Holland” plants from Australia, and Camellias from China. By the 1880s palms and giant bamboos grew to the top of the Dome, but the social and political disruption arising from the First World War lead to a period of decline.”
The conservatory is mostly empty but in excellent trim after its restoration in the 1980s, unlike many of its contemporaries and the one at Chatsworth which were destroyed during WWI and WWII due to shortages of labour and fuel.
It was a very chilly day when we visited, though bright and sunny, as you can see. I was very tempted to explore the gardens further, but it was too darned cold.
On to the house, then, shall we? We enter via the Great Hall, its walls in soft shades of yellow and taupe and a striking black and white floor.
How did such an ugly house get such a beautiful interior? We left the Percy family in 1594 when they first acquired the property. Let’s skip over the Civil War, and come to 1750, when Hugh and Elizabeth, who were to become the 1st Duke and Duchess (an elevation from Earl and Countess) of Northumberland, inherited the estates. Leading figures in society, they were unhappy with its dated interiors and formal landscape, which had also become unfashionable. Both gardens and house were in poor condition to boot.
They undertook a complete redesign of Syon and hired the leading lights of the time. Landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown banished the formal landscape and embarked on the open views characteristic of the English Landscape movement. Scottish architect Robert Adam created stunning classical interiors, filled with antiquities shipped from Italy.
Unable to alter the interior layout of the House, Adam’s instructions were nonetheless “to create a palace of Graeco-Roman splendour”. No easy task, I’d say, given the uneven floor levels of the existing Tudor house, which he overcame with staircases of various heights leading between the rooms. The mouldings are spectacular.
High on the walls are medallions en Grisaille (paintings executed in grey or other neutral colours). They provide the perfect subtle accent to the soft colour scheme.
Up the double staircase and through the doors at the end of the Great Hall is the Ante Room, where the colour scheme is much more vivid.
The colourful floor is one of the earliest examples of scagliola – a composite of marble, filler and colouring materials – in Britain.
The room gives the impression of being square; the clever placement of the columns conceals that it’s actually rectangular. It’s a neat trick.
Going through to the dining room, the colour scheme switches to soft pink, with green highlights, lots of gilding and just a touch of red in the alcoves that display the statues.
The chimneypiece features a marble panel of the Three Graces, who were the daughters of Zeus.
Though the detail is unarguably ornate, overall, the room conveys a sense of spacious simplicity, typical of Adam’s designs.
More lions (these ones upright) hold up an urn in the window enclosure.
Simplicity is left behind in the Red Drawing Room. Holy Hannah! The first thing that hits you is the ceiling, followed rapidly by the wall hangings of cerise Spitalfield silk, which was probably woven in the 1820s. During conservation work in 1965, the hangings were removed, reversed and re-hung. Recycling at its best.
The ceiling comprises 239 medallions. Adam’s rival architect, Sir William Chambers, referred to them as “skied dinner plates”.
Taken in their totality, one can see his point.
Focusing on them individually, the detail is lovely. It’s just a bit dizzying seeming them all together; the colours are quite vivid.
The walls are thickly hung with portraits, mostly of British Royalty and members of the Percy family.
The couple in the painting on the far right is Charles I with his wife, Henrietta Maria of France. He came to a bad end at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians. A portrait of Algernon Percy hangs over the doorway.
Speaking of the doorway, not only is the casing incredibly ornate, but the door itself is also panelled and heavily gilded.
The next room was my all-out favourite, the Long Gallery. Adam designed it for the delight of the ladies, and I think he hit the mark, at least with this lady.
As this is already a very long post, I’ll continue it as Syon Park Part II and provide lots of pictures of the wonderful details in this room, including the delightful antechambers at the end, which look like Wedgwood Jasperware. Here’s a sneak peek. Upstairs there are more casual family rooms and Princess (later Queen) Victoria’s bedchamber. Her governess/educator was a member of the Percy family, and thus she was often at Syon with her mother, The Duchess of Kent. Stay tuned!
I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.