SYON HOUSE

by Victoria Hinshaw

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.

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. 

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.
Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland

By 1764, Syon 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  current taste. 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 and 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.

From the website: Robert Adam and ‘Capability’ Brown

“The 7th Duke of Somerset died in 1750, and Hugh and Elizabeth, who were to become the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, inherited the estates.  They were leading figures in contemporary society, and would have inherited a house with dated interiors, surrounded by an unfashionable formal landscape.  Gardens and House were both in a poor condition.

“The solution was a complete redesign of Syon.  In one of his first major commissions, the landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown swept away the formal landscape to the south and west of the House, replacing it with the open views characteristic of the English Landscape movement.  Over the course of twenty years he extended this to the north and west, incorporating farmland to the west into the new park, and creating Pleasure Grounds to the north, both centred on large new ornamental lakes.  In the House the Scottish architect Robert Adam was commissioned to create a series of striking classical interiors, filled with antiquities shipped from Italy.  Adam was not able to change the interior layout of the House, and so used a number of architectural devices to create a suitable impression.”

Following  a carefully designed route through Capability Brown’s Park, then through a monumental portico, one enters the Great Hall. 

The visitor experiences a  dramatic contrast when stepping into the Ante-Room after the subdued serenity of the Hall.

 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, while some of the statue bases conceal chamberpots. 

 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.  The walls are of red Spitalfields silk, while diamonds and octagons on the ceiling contrast with the painted medallions with gilded banding.

The Long Gallery was intended by Adam for the use of the ladies.  The Tudor room is 136 feet long with a width and height of only 14 feet. 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. 

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 delicate 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!
 

Syon Park and House are on the itinerary of Number One London’s Town and Country House Tour in September – details and complete itinerary can be found here.

 

Give `Em The Wellie – An Introduction to Bootmaker George Hoby

George Hoby was not only the greatest and most fashionable bootmaker in London, but, in spite of the old adage, “ne sutor ultra crepidam,” he employed his spare time with considerable success as a Methodist preacher at Islington. He was said to have in his employment three hundred workmen; and he was so great a man in his own estimation that he was apt to take rather an insolent tone with his customers. He was, however, tolerated as a sort of privileged person, and his impertinence was not only overlooked, but was considered as rather a good joke. He was a pompous fellow, with a considerable vein of sarcastic humour, as evidenced in the following anecdotes handed down to us by Captain Gronow –

I remember Horace Churchill, (afterwards killed in India with the rank of major-general,) who was then an ensign in the Guards, entering Hoby’s shop in a great passion, saying that his boots were so ill made that he should never employ Hoby for the future. Hoby, putting on a pathetic cast of countenance, called to his shopman, “John, close the shutters. It is all over with us. I must shut up shop; Ensign Churchill withdraws his custom from me.” Churchill’s fury can be better imagined than described. On another occasion the late Sir John Shelley came into Hoby’s shop to complain that his topboots had split in several places. Hoby quietly said, “How did that happen, Sir John?” “Why, in walking to my stable.” “Walking to your stable!” said Hoby, with a sneer. ” I made the boots for riding, not walking.”

Hoby was bootmaker to George III, the Prince of Wales, the royal dukes, Beau Brummell, most of the aristocracy and many officers in the army and navy. His shop was situated at the top of St James’s Street, at the corner of Piccadilly, next to the old Guards Club. Hoby was the first man who drove about London in a tilbury. It was painted black, and drawn by a beautiful black cob. This vehicle was built by the inventor, Mr Tilbury, whose manufactory was in a street leading from South Audley Street into Park Street.

No doubt Mr. Hoby had patterns for all manner of desirable boots, evidenced not in the least by his impressive client list. However, he will forever be linked to a boot design not of his making. Of course I refer to the Wellington boot, a pair of the Duke’s own boots of this design are pictured at left. Hoby had been bootmaker to the Duke of Wellington from his boyhood, and received innumerable orders in the Duke’s handwriting, both from the Peninsula and France, which he always religiously preserved. The Duke asked Hoby to modify the 18th-century Hessian boot to a height below the knee, in order to make them more practical for walking and riding. The resulting  boot was made of softer calfskin leather, had no trim, boasted heels one inch high and fit more closely around the leg, making it more practical and hard-wearing for battle, yet comfortable for the evening. The boot was dubbed the Wellington and was quickly adopted by Hoby’s other customers.

Hoby was also bootmaker to the Duke of Kent; and as he was calling on H.R.H. to try on some boots, the news arrived that Lord Wellington had gained a great victory over the French army at Vittoria. The duke was kind enough to mention the glorious news to Hoby, who coolly said, “If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.”

Hoby may have had a penchant for sarcasm and a high opinion of himself (and his own influence upon British military history) but he knew how to run a business – Hoby died worth a hundred and twenty thousand pounds.

What We Saw At Waterloo – June 19, 2010

In 2010, Victoria Hinshaw and I both crossed an item off our respective bucket lists by attending the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. We began in Brussels, toured some of the ancillary battles sites, including the village of Waterloo and La Belle Alliance and then we visited the camps which the re-enactors had set up, beginning with the Allied camp. Our first glimpse of the site was at Hougoumont. Here are some highlights of our day –

 

The grounds of the Chateau Hougoumont where the Allied re-enactors had set up their camp, complete with horses, trailers, tents and families.

The memorial reads: “To the memory of General Baudin who fell in front of these walls 18 June 1815.”  General Marechel de Camp Baudin was the bridgade commander who led the first assault on Hougoumont and was the first French general to die in the battle.

This is one of the women who were acting the role of a soldier, most of the others were cooks and camp-followers. The braids are decorative, but are they regulation?!

A view of the battlefield from the Chateau Hougoumont.

Some horses came with their own quarters.

Here is a Hussar engaging in every military man’s favorite exercise.

This uniform is carefully pressed with white gloves at the ready.

As we had previously visited the battle sites leading up to Waterloo (Quatre Bras, Ligny), we thought it only fitting to do a recce of the French encampment, centered around Le Caillou, where Napoleon slept the night before the battle.

This is how the building usually looks, but on the weekend of the 195th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon, the museum here and the grounds were chock-a-block with French re-enactors for the Sunday battle.  They seemed amazingly upbeat though the outcome had been known for almost two centuries.

That’s Napoleon in the gray.

Shades of Marengo!
Poor old Field Marshal Ney, above and below, tried his darndest and for his efforts, he was shot for treason – but he had a very fancy uniform. The phrase “proud as a peacock” comes to mind.
Actually there were quite a few fancy uniforms among the French forces.
Elsewhere, the French attempted to uphold their reputation for exceptional cuisine.
The soldier does not seem to appreciate the lady’s cooking!
Déjeuner.
Above a few civilians who were at the French encampment.  When we suggested to the mademoiselles that they looked like characters from Jane Austen’s novels, they were aghast.  “Oh, non, non!” they exclaimed.
An example of French humour. Tres amusant.

FASHIONS OF 1812

Victoria here, looking through my collection of Regency-era fashion plates to see what was worn 200 years ago. I find I have five plates from 1812, two framed on the wall of my office, the others filed away in notebooks.  So here, in case you want to be entirely up to date two centuries ago:

Fashions of 1812

Ackermann’s Repository of Arts    Half Dress, January 1812

A Roman round robe of stone colour or pale olive cloth embroidered in a variegated chenille border; long sleeves finished at the wrist to correspond and lined with pink sarsnet. Pomeranian mantle of silk, the colour of the robe and finished with deep Chinese silk fringe. Cap of black or colored velvet, ornamented with a rich silk tassel, and curled ostrich feathers placed towards the left side. High standing collar of muslin or net, edged with lace or needle work, rising above the robe at the throat. Pink embroidered ridicule. Gloves a pale lemon colour, and half boots of pink kid, trimmed with narrow sable fur.

Ladies Magazine January 1812  London Morning and Evening Dresses

Morning dress. – Pelisse of maroon silk, lined throughout with fur, which when buttoned, forms a sort of lappel: standing collar, to turn over; and very deep cuffs. – A hat of the same silk, trimmed with ribbon and feathers.
 
Evening dress, of green satin, with epaulettes of lace.– Cap of the same, trimmed with lace and a flower.

Ackermann’s Repository of Arts  Morning Dress, May 1812

A French frock of fine plain India muslin, with demi-train, and long full bishop’s sleeves. Waggoners’ cuffs, with gaged front, and shoulders to correspond. Tucker of double-rolled muslin, which also finishes the cuffs round the hands.

A Parisian mob cap of fine lace, confined round the head, and terminating on one side with a celestial blue or silver grey ribbon. Sash of the same, tied in small bows and ends in front. Hair in waved curls, divided in the center of the forehead. Spanish slippers of lemon-colored kid, and gloves of the same material.

The peculiar taste and elegant simplicity of these habiliments are further specimens of the graceful invention of the celebrated Mrs. Gill, of Cork-streeet, Burlington-gardens, from whom we have obtained them.

Ackermann’s Repository of Arts November 1812  Evening Dress
A white crape or mull muslin petticoat, worn over white satin, finished round the bottom with a ball fringe of gold; a crimson velvet or satin bodice, formed so as partially to expose the bosom and shoulders. A short bishop’s sleeve, edged with ball fringe, and ornamented with the same round the bosom, and shoulders. A short sash of shaded ribband, to correspond with the colour of the bodice, tied in short bows and ends in front of the figure.
A shepherdess’s hat, composed of crimson velvet and white satin; a curled ostrich feather placed entirely on one side, and waving towards the back of the neck. The hair divided on the forehead, and curled on each side, rather lower than of late. Treble neck-chain, and amulet of wrought gold; short drop ear rings, and bracelets en suite. Crimson velvet or satin slippers trimmed with gold rosettes or fringe. White kid gloves, just avoiding the elbow. Fan of white and silver embossed crape or carved ivory. Occasional scarf of white French silk, with embroidered ends and border.
La Belle Assemblee  February, 1812 –A Winter Walking Dress

A scarlet Merino cloth pelisse, lined with straw coloured sarsnet, trimmed with light coloured spotted fur, and attached with loops of black silk cordon and rich frog tassels; the broad fur in front, forming a tippet, pointed at the back. A narrow fur passes from the top of the sleeve, is brought down the side seams, and relieved by fastenings of black silk cordon; four loops with frogs ornament the shoulders and cuffs; plain standing up collar tied with cordon: a fine cashemire shawl, with brown ground, and richly variegated border, is generally thrown over the dress, in which is united both comfort and elegance. A Swedish hat of the same material as the pelisse, lined with straw colour, and fastened up one side; the crown trimmed with two rows of narrow spotted fur, and one still narrower at the edge of the hat; a bunch of the Christmas holly in front, and two tassels falling from the summit of the crown, of black, to answer the pelisse, with is worn over a white round dress, either of plain or corded cambric. Beaver gloves, and demi-broquins of scarlet Morocco, laced with black, and lined with fur, complete the dress.

Of all the outfits pictured here, I think I’d choose the evening dress with the shepherdess hat!  Just the thing for the next ball I attend.  Though since I am still in Wisconsin, I suppose I’d be wise to choose that fur-trimmed winter walking dress, which looks like it would be comfy on a windy, chilly day.