Syon House (Greater London): Adam as interior decorator of the medieval house

For my third visit to Syon House, I visited on the house’s final open day of 2011.

Reason to visit: to see how Robert Adam redecorated the long gallery to create a feminine space into which the ladies could withdraw (and which appeared in the BBC’s recent dramatisation of Great Expectations, Christmas 2011, as a gentleman’s club which Pip frequented).

The last comment in the visitors’ book read Wonderful.  Shame about the aeroplanes”

Indeed, Syon is moments from and directly under the flight path to Heathrow and so every 30 seconds a large plane soars overhead.  So, as I stood in the Adam redesigned entrance hall looking out into the inner courtyard listening to my audio guide, I found myself giggling like a school child every time the audio was drowned out: oh dear, the juxtaposition of such a wonderful, historic house with excellent interiors and more history one can shake a stick at and unwelcome modern interventions.  Why anyone would get married in the Orangery I have no idea.  Dinner here though?  Yes, of course – I just need to find the right opportunity.

I spy a Robert Adam entrance hall…

What is a man such as the Duke of Northumberland to do?  Stay in his London flat when he comes to London (as a guide let slip he almost always does) and concentrate his efforts on his Northern country home (Alnwick) while turning Syon into a tourist attraction, complete with garden centre (my favourite near Central London save for the delights of the mini-garden centre village that is Crews Hill near Enfield), hotel (which has sprung up since I last visited in 2009 but is certainly handy for the airport) and open the house up to as much corporate entertainment (my first encounter with Syon was at a Moorcroft Collectors Weekend) as people are prepared to pay for?

I remember being involved in the sale of one of the houses on the Syon Estate when the estate agent was politely asked to photoshop the gigantic aeroplane from the sky that was drowning the house beneath. The planes really are a problem when outside at Syon.

My suggestion – turn the audio guide up really loud and enter into Robert Adam’s early world, where he received a commission from the Duke of Northumberland to transform the interiors of 4 rooms at his medieval hall house.  The result is 2 masterpieces (the Long Gallery and the Ante-Room) and two examples of Adam working with client and existing house design to apply his ideas to something he wouldn’t himself have conceived (the Entrance Hall with uneven floor and the Red Drawing Room, much darker in design that Adam’s typical interiors).

The Long Gallery, transformed into a lady's retiring space with lots of interesting decoration to entertain them.  Source:

The Long Gallery, transformed into a lady’s retiring space with lots of interesting decoration to entertain them. Note how the cut lozenges on the roof make the room feel wider, as though it continues beyond the walls.  The carpet is from the 1970s!


The other problem with Syon? Well, not for me but for D.  D hasn’t been to Syon House yet (just the garden centre) because I anticipate a problem: really, I should visit Adam houses on my own.  I get shouted at for lingering and asking too many questions, revisiting rooms I’ve already been in and pointing out almost every fascinating detail.  I was in the Adam rooms at Syon this time for nearly one and a half hours.  I was virtually dragged out of Harewood recently and at Osterley D “faked?” a poorly leg and said we had to leave.  So to date I’ve been to Syon alone but have promised a joint trip next year, when I’ll focus on the gardens and (possibly?) whizz around the house.

A brief summary of Syon House is nearly impossible.

Of monastic origins, Henry VIII sent Catherine of Aragon here while her fate was decided, Henry the VIII’s body was stored (and exploded) here en-route to Windsor for his burial.

Do pop down the spiral staircase in the Ante-Room and visit the exhibition on the monastery and Henry VIII – it truly is fascinating and long should it continue.

FYI, Syon, I love your guide-book and the depth of knowledge of your guides, especially Howard – they told me so much, even pointing out your invasion of parakeets perching on your scaffolding.  For example, I had to go back into the ante-room and check out the marble clad pillars that James Adam convinced the Earl were solid in their entirety, having been recovered from a shipwreck, but in fact the Adams had made up some extras using cladding and these were exposed after shrapnel damage during WW2 – closer inspection of the pillars near the windows will reap you rewards.  See the London Historian’s blog review for some great pictures – I wasn’t allowed to photograph inside.

There are only four Adam rooms at Syon and I think by their own admission the remaining private apartments and Victorian bedrooms (including state bedrooms for the young princess Victoria and separately for her mother when they stayed – the Duchess was Victoria’s governess and insisted on separate bedrooms) aren’t ‘much worth seeing’ in comparison.  I disagree, they are homely in the most unlived sense and I just wish there were children still running around and a bit of IKEA to admit that Syon is still a home.

Princess Victoria's Bedroom

When you’ve passed through the print room (about which more next week) after Adam’s rooms don’t forget to check out the first bronze in the Oak hallway – under the rear left hoof of the horse is a frog just about to get squashed – a sly about betraying the French :).

What I really like about Syon is its construction – the private rooms look out into the inner courtyard and the State Rooms look out onto the Capability Brown landscape outside.  I’ve always wanted an internal courtyard and if ever I commission a house, if I were not to plump for a Palladian palazzo, I might pinch Syon’s idea!

Oh my dear Syon, I will be back to see you again.

House * out of 5: ****

When visited: October 2011

Website: click here

Nearest town: Brentford – I took the train from Waterloo (30 mins) and then cycled the 5 minutes to Syon.

Theme tune: Burn by Usher (because what would you do if someone installed Heathrow next door?)

Further reading:

26 thoughts on “Syon House (Greater London): Adam as interior decorator of the medieval house

    1. there is actually so MUCH to write about the changes in the exterior and additions of staircases etc inside. there were no corridors upstairs for example and so the Victorians added an extra bit to the side to get a corridor in, adding the current stairs at the same time. I’ll be going back to Syon time and time again so I’ll focus on a different bit each time. The guide book is also the best I’ve seen in a long time. They do a really good job; it’s just a shame about the planes overhead!

  1. I envy your visits *sigh*. When spouse and I lived in Britain for a few years, we lived in the SE corner and hardly ever travelled to the north of England or into Scotland. Yet I know the Duke of Northumberland’s country home (Alnwick) quite well and I know Syon House very little.

    Why was Robert Adam commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland to transform the interiors of only four rooms? The rest of Syon House must have been looking very old fashioned by then, surely.

    1. I’ll read the guide book and see what it says. I hardly ever buy a guide book but I just had to at Syon. The house is much altered and quite a hotch potch of styles – not the prettiest thing to look at but then neither is Osterley Park, which Adam was also decorating (and much more extensively) at the same time. The rooms RA did at Syon are the ‘state/entertaining’ rooms, the others on the ground floor being the print room, corridor (a victorian addition), victorian stairs and the internal ‘family rooms’ – they look into the inner courtyard. thus Adam really did all the public ground floor rooms. I’ll see what I can find out though…

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