Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Great Country Estates of Britain Series. Part Six: Syon Park

Syon House and its 200 acre park is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland, whose family have lived here for over 400 years. Originally the site of a medieval abbey, Syon was named after Mount Zion in the Holy Land. The abbey was dedicated to the Bridgettine Order, established in the 14th century by the great Swedish mystic St Bridget.

Above: An etching of a likeness of the abbey

One of the last great abbeys to be built (founded by King Henry V in 1415), Syon was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539.

Henry VIII

In 1547, King Henry VIII's coffin was brought to Syon on its way to Windsor for burial. Reputedly, it burst open during the night and in the morning dogs were found licking up the remains! This was regarded as a divine judgement for the King's desecration of Syon Abbey during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Following the discovery of the ruins of the Abbey Church in 2003, Birkbeck University of London have continued to undertake annual excavations. Our friend Becky spent most of last summer there excavating.

After the suppression of the abbey, the estate became Crown property and became the possession of the 1st Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector to the young son of King Henry VIII, Edward VI. He built Syon House in the Italian Renaissance style, over the foundations of the west end of the huge abbey church, (which was the size of a cathedral), between 1547 and his death by execution in 1552.

Syon was then acquired by a rival, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, whose son, Lord Guildford Dudley, married Lady Jane Grey, the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII. It was at Syon that she was formally offered the Crown, which she accepted reluctantly. She was taken to London by boat up the Thames and proclaimed Queen. Nine days later, she was displaced by King Henry VIII's eldest daughter, Mary Tudor, who had her executed the following year.

Mary Tudor re-established the abbey at Syon. But when she died suddenly in 1558 the nuns left the country on the accession of her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1594, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, acquired Syon through his marriage to Dorothy Devereux and the Percy family has lived at Syon House ever since. Henry Percy led an extraordinary life. He was a great scholar, became the patron of the English astronomer Thomas Harriot, the first man to map the surface of the moon before Galileo and earned his nickname ‘Wizard’ by experimenting in alchemy. He was a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and their interest in the New World led them to consume great quantities of tobacco and potatoes. But it was on 4 November 1605, that the Earl’s fortunes declined overnight. A distant cousin, Thomas Percy, who was a staunch Roman Catholic, dined with the Earl at Syon before joining Guy Fawkes and his accomplices the next day, in the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. As one of the principal ‘gunpowder plotters’, Thomas was shot trying to make his escape. Although innocent of the charges brought against him, the Earl was implicated through his association with Thomas and the fateful meeting at Syon. He was confined in the Tower of London for the next 15 years on the orders of King James I.

His nephew, the 10th Earl, became a great patron of the foremost artists of his day, including Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Lely. But it was his reputation for impartiality during the English Civil War, which led him to become governor to King Charles I’s younger son, James Duke of York, from 1646-9, who was to become the future King James II. The younger children of King Charles I lived at Syon in 1646 and the King visited them during his imprisonment at Hampton Court Palace.

Above: a painting of Syon House dating from before Robert Adam and Capability Brown were employed to modernise the house and garden in around 1760. However no major changes were made to the external structure of the building. There are various distortions in this painting: the house is shown closer to the river than it really is, the river is shown too small, and the boats too large.

In 1750, Sir Hugh Smithson inherited the Percy estates through his wife, Elizabeth Seymour (the Percy family name had ceased due to the 11th Earl of Northumberland only producing a female heir). Proud of her ancestry, Elizabeth and her husband revived the Percy name. In 1750, Sir Hugh became Earl and then 1st Duke of Northumberland in 1766. The first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland were determined to make their mark on Syon Park; their solution was to completely redesign the estate.

The Scottish architect, Robert Adam was instructed to remodel the interior of Syon House and the Northumbrian designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to lay out the grounds in the fashionable style of the English Landscape Movement. Brown and Adam had more in common than just being fashionable designers; both were aspiring to create a new ideal form of an earlier time. Whilst Adam’s architecture was inspired by classical Rome, so Brown took the medieval deer park as a model for an ideal countryside. Both were consciously borrowing the connotations of wealth, power and antiquity, and packaging them for their clients.

Above and Below: Adam's plans for Syon House

The Duke was one of Robert Adam’s chief patrons and engaged him soon after Adam returned from Italy. In 1761, Adam published his plan for the interior decoration of Syon House, which included a complete suite of rooms on the principal level, together with a rotunda to be erected in the main courtyard. In the event, five main rooms on the west, south and east sides of the House, from the Great Hall to the Long Gallery were refurbished in the Neo-classical style. It was enough to place a stamp on the architect and his work in England and it is said, “at Syon the Adam style was actually initiated”. Syon House is feted as Adam’s early English masterpiece and has been recognised as the finest surviving evidence of his revolutionary use of colour, as in the design for the Mirror Room below...

The Anteroom (below) also demonstrates the use of colour, particularly in the scagliola floor.

Above: The Long Gallery

Below: The Red Drawing Room

Above and Below: The Great Hall, one of the Adams' finest works.

The power and influence of the Dukes of Northumberland was confirmed when the 3rd Duchess was appointed official governess to the young Princess Victoria. The bedrooms of Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, are still named after them and retain their original beds. The young Princess would have enjoyed the conservatory in the gardens, which was completed in 1830, the first conservatory to be built from metal and glass on a large scale...

The official website: Syon Park


  1. Thank you! Absolutely it IS one of the great country estates... amazing architecture, decorative arts, garden design. And it goes to show that family political and financial fortunes are fickle things... here one generation, gone the next.

    But one thing I had forgotten was the 1830 conservatory in the gardens. If it was the first conservatory to be built from metal and glass, I must go back and see if and how it influenced other mid-century conservatories.

  2. Always loved that conservatory and a fine house. Thank you, it years since I've been.

  3. I'd be content living in the green house. LOL Such opulence and grandeur.
    It is just breath taking.
    Thank you for this fabulous post and sharing it.


  4. Great post.
    I used to live across the river at kew.
    And this post brought back many memories.
    Best Wishes


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