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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Syon House

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Syon House  exterior
Syon House exterior

Syon House is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland, whose family, the Percys, have lived here for 400 years. The house, located in Brentford, was described by John Betjeman as the “Grand Architectural Walk”, with its 200-acre park that feel like deep countryside, although it is barely nine mile from Charing Cross. The place has a rich and interesting history that dates back to the Tudor period and had several connections with the royal history. In the 15th century in the place of the house there was a large and very wealthy abbey housing a Swedish monastic order known as the Bridgettines founded and royally endowed by King Henry V in 1415.

It became one of the richest, most fashionable, and influential religious communities in the country until its dissolution under King Henry VIII. One of the monks of the community, Richard Reynolds, was among the first members of the English clergy to be executed as traitors for his refusal to accept the Oath of Supremacy. Its other inhabitants were expelled and Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was imprisoned for adultery here in November 1541, before being sent to the Tower of London for beheading.

The estate fell in 1547 into the hands Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and brother to Jane Seymour the third wife of Henry VIII. She died after the birth of her only child, a son who became King Edward VI.

The Duke of Somerset began constructing a Renaissance-style house with one of the first botanical garden and all the project was largely completed by the time of his death for treason in 1552.

The house passed under the ownership of Somerset’s rival John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, which leads to another fascinating link between Syon and British royal history.

The Duke’s son, Lord Guildford, was married to Lady Jane Grey who was nominated by Edward VI as his successor. As you stroll through Syon’s Long Gallery, it’s worth remembering that this is where the Duke persuaded her to accept the Crown in 1553. Of course, Lady Jane is now known as “The Nine Days’ Queen”, making her the first Queen of England and Ireland. She was deposed by Mary I, imprisoned, and executed the following year, as was the Duke.

Both Mary I and her successor, Elizabeth I, paid visits to Syon and by 1593, much of the house we see today had taken shape. When Elizabeth died, King James I gave the freehold to his supporter Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, who undertook major repair work and brought many distinct touches to Syon.

Syon’s next owner, Algernon, the 10th Earl of Northumberland, commissioned and acquired works by master artists of the day, and some of these (including a portrait of Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, by Anthony van Dyck) hang in the Red Drawing Room today.

Algernon managed to survive the turbulence of the English Civil War due to what King describes as “his skill for equivocating”. Oliver Cromwell held a council meeting here in 1647, while Charles I visited Syon House several times between 1646 and 1648, largely to see his younger children, who were under Algernon’s care.

In the mid-18th Century Elizabeth Percy and Sir Hugh Smithson hired Robert Adam as part of their elaborate plan to modernise Syon, which also involved resurfacing the exteriors with Bath Stone.

Robert Adam, Scottish architect and designer (1728-1792), was really famous in the Eighteen century for his neoclassical interiors, influenced by ancient Greek and Roman culture, such as Dumfries House, Culzean Castle, Kenwood House but Syon arguably boasts the finest Adam interiors in Britain.

Adam’s work impress you as soon as you enter the portico coach gate into the Great Hall.

Syon House Great Hall
Syon House Great Hall
Syon House Ante Room
Syon House Ante Room

Adam based the room feature on the basic plan of a Roman basilica, and the cubic hall is filled with Doric columns, classical busts (including Socrates and Claudius), the copy of the Apollo Belvedere and bronze statue of The Dying Gaul.

The Great Hall leads onto a very different but equally arresting Adam-designed room: the Ante Room, where guests would wait to be served dinner. In contrast to the cream-coloured grandeur of the Great Hall, the Ante Room is an explosion of colour. The bright floor is made of scagliola a colour pigments imitation of marble. The room also features classical Roman statues and gilded trophy panels inspired by Rome’s hillside Villa Madama, while Adam cleverly used twelve scagliola-veneered Ionic columns to give the false impression that the room is square.

Syon House Dining Room
Syon House Dining Room

The first room that Adam and his talented team of artists and designers completed, though, was the Dining Room. This room also benefits from Adam’s distinct neoclassical style. Grand Corinthian columns stand on either side, while frieze panels of Greek mythologies sit above classical statues.

The Dining room features marble statues of Ceres and Bacchus representing food and drink.

Remnants of the state dining table, which ran the length of the room, are stored in a cleverly disguised cupboard. The capacious space often doubled as a ballroom for grand dances. The State Dining Room is still used for many celebrations today.

The Red Drawing Room is a reminder of just how much variety Adam brought to the house. It has crimson Spitalfields silk hanging on the walls, and a red honeysuckle-themed carpet created by Thomas Moore.

This theme is echoed on the 239 medallions that decorate the ceiling, which depict assorted Arcadian figures.

The next room is the impressive Long Gallery long 136-foot room, replaced the former wood-panelled Tudor Gallery.

Syon House Long Gallery
Syon House Long Gallery

The Long Gallery also features what Adam described as “a style to afford variety and amusement”. It includes mirrors that project upside down reflections, 62 guilded and painted in bright pink and blue Corinthian pilasters over 3,000 books and two hidden “Turret Rooms” (or boudoirs) at either end.

The north-east Turret Room is particularly impressive. Decorated with colourfully-painted stucco and complete with a mechanical singing bird timepiece, this would have made a picturesque location for ladies to talk or play chess.

Syon is also closely tied to other key figures in British history. As a young woman, Princess Victoria was instructed here on court manners by Duchess Charlotte Florentia. Visitors can see where the future queen used to sleep in the East Front of the house. The East Front leads on to the nursery rooms where the current Duke and his siblings used to sleep as children. During World War I and World War II, rooms here were used as overspill from nearby West Middlesex Hospital as London was being pummelled by Doodlebugs.

Syon has also a beautiful landscape of 200 acres designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, regarded as one of Britain’s greatest landscape gardeners, and his work can be seen everywhere from Blenheim Palace to Warwick Castle.

At Syon, he was brought in to lay out the gardens in the British Landscape Movement style.

His alterations included the creation of the serene ‘pleasure garden’. The showpiece is its quarter-mile ornamental lake, which is surrounded by rare trees and flowers from around the world.

The park’s other striking feature is the domed Great Conservatory.

Syon House Great Conservatory
Syon House Great Conservatory

Designed by Devon-born architect Charles Fowler, as a neo-classical elevation on a Palladian model. This ambitious building, which still exists, is composed of several glasshouses of varying width and height, with a total frontage of 230 feet (70 m); the central tropical house is in the form of a Greek cross, with a glass dome 38 feet (12 m) wide.

Fowley was the architect of Covent Garden and with this project in Syon House he proved to be the inspiration for London’s Crystal Palace.

The conservatory housed the 3rd Duke of Northumberland’s exotic flowers and giant bamboos.

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