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.

 

2 thoughts on “SYON HOUSE”

  1. Syon House is not far from my daughter's house in South Ealing. Have been there many times. They used to have a lovely Butterfly House, but it's now gone. They also have a children's play area and book for children's birthday parties. They also have a gardening centre.

    It's a gorgeous site and well worth visiting if you go to London.

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