Recently I secured a small slot on Hayes FM radio station every Thursday, talking about local history, that is to say generally West London. I haven’t broadcast (ahem) this fact much since I feel the need to hone my skills a bit. And to relax! So far we have covered Strawberry Hill House, Osterley Park and World War I veterans (a bit off-piste, that one). Today we talked about Syon Park, a place I have visited dozens of times over the years.
Syon Park, on about 200 Thames-side acres near Isleworth, comprises Syon House and the park itself. It is owned by Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, in whose family it has been held for 400 years. As one cruises up the long driveway to the car park and garden centre (very good one, by the way), one sees the pale honey-coloured mansion on the right. On two storeys with towers at each end it appears low and wide, plain, crenellated and rather austere looking. This all changes the minute you walk through the front door and enter the exquisite Main Hall, designed and decorated – as was most of the house – by Robert Adam in the early 1760s. He worked on Syon simultaneously with Osterley House not far away, along with Kelvedon Hall in Derbyshire. These were early commissions in his career and what built his reputation. And so you continue through the house, room after room, every one of which has the wow factor. Statues, classical columns and ceilings, carpets, tapestries, chandeliers, the best antique furniture, clocks, miles of bookshelves. And paintings, hundreds of paintings. Most of the walls are festooned with historic portraits. Here you will see works by Lely, Reynolds, Gainsborough, van Dyk and many others. Kings, princes, dukes, red indian chiefs. They are all magnificent. Many these artifacts and decor are showing their age a bit, but in overall excellent nick thanks to the dedication of the Percy family and their staff and volunteers.
The seat of the Dukes of Northumberland is Alnwick Castle in that ancient county. Syon is often referred to as being the Percys’ London town house. But strictly speaking it is their London country house. For, until 1866, their London town house was the massive Northumberland House in the Strand which was demolished to make way for today’s Northumberland Avenue, linking the Thames embankment with Whitehall. Most of the fixtures, fittings and treasures of Northumberland House were relocated to the castle and to Syon.
Syon’s park and gardens are similarly spectacular. While Adam was doing his thing indoors, the estate was landscaped by Capability Brown. From the Long Gallery you get a lovely view down to the Thames of lawn, then field, then marsh. This is the first upriver site on the north bank of the Thames that is unembanked, hence still as Nature and Capability intended. The garden itself hosts a narrow-gauge steam railway and several peacocks. But best of all is the Great Conservatory, built of glass and metal in 1830 by Charles Fowler, thus pre-dating both Decimus Burton’s Palm House at Kew and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
As you would expect, the story of Syon since the 15th Century is the story of England. In 1547, Henry VIII’s bloated corpse was rested here on its journey to Windsor Castle. Unfortunately it exploded, and the following morning dogs were seen to be licking his rotting entrails. For a short time the young Lady Jane Grey lived here some years before her appointment with destiny and the axe. There is a portrait of her as a child in the house. While under arrest at Hampton Court, Charles I would visit his children who were kept under house arrest at Syon, one can imagine the melancholy, captured in a wonderful painting by Sir Peter Lely. The 9th Earl of Northumberland, known as “the Wizard” was implicated (but only by association) in the Gunpowder Plot and consequently spent 15 years in the Tower. The Dukes of Northumberland and their immediate kin were heavily involved in the American colonies, variously as governors, explorers and soldiers. Sir Hugh Smithson, who married into the Percys and becoming the Duke of Northumberland by marriage, was the father of James Smithson who endowed the Smithsonian Institution. Princess Victoria and her mother often stayed at Syon, and two upstairs bedrooms named after them survive in their original decor.
Before Syon existed as a home of aristocrats, it was the site of Syon Abbey, a truly massive structure founded by Henry V for Bridgitine nuns. A seat of learning, it was a favourite institution of the pious Catherine of Aragon. Under Henry VIII it was dissolved and its Father Confessor, Richard Reynolds beheaded. It was briefly re-instituted under Mary I, but after that completely and utterly demolished. Flattened, every last stone. And so Syon Abbey was largely forgotten until in 2004, when Channel 4’s Time Team had a bit of a poke about and discovered substantial foundations. The project was then taken up by Birkbeck University, whose archaeologists have been beavering away ever since, uncovering an impressive haul of artifacts. Many of these can be viewed in a small display in the basement of the house.
Much pleasure of visiting Syon derives largely from the fact that it is a private home and working estate. Despite its grandeur, in many ways it feels homely. There are family photos of the Duke and his family in the 136 feet Long Gallery, along with pictures of the Royal Family which are personal ones, not the pictures for consumption via the media. You can tell that the knowledgeable staff feel a proud sense of propriety toward the place. Old fashioned, I know, and perhaps surviving from lost times. But it certainly makes your visit all the more worthwhile.
My favourite bit? The Red Drawing Room, with its royal portraits and a rare Adam-designed carpet.
The Syon Estate and Garden Centre is open all year round. The garden is open most days. The house itself is closed over the winter and open in the summer on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. More info here.