Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Spectacular Syon House

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The month of October has started quite spectacularly for me. Having heard about Syon House during my training as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York almost ten years ago (one of the 'period' rooms at the Museum is a recreation of the Dining Room at Syon House), I had long wanted to visit this stately country estate. Only the last time I was in the area, it was closed to visitors and I had detoured and visited Kew Gardens instead. A visit to its website informed me that it would close to visitors in November. There was no time to waste. I managed to rope in my friend Janie Yang to undertake the excursion with me and with her Dad Ken accompanying us, we spent a truly breathtaking day in one of the UK's most splendid homes.

It is a blessing to have for a friend a Londoner with a car. Not only does it make travel so much more pleasant, but Janie was able to get us there through the cutest villages along the banks of the River Thames. Though the day started off cloudy, the sun peeked out by the afternoon. It remained chilly though as a cold wind blew all day. I was glad I had bundled up as the forecaster on TV had suggested.

For 8 pounds apiece, we had the run of the house and the gardens with the splendid conservatory thrown in as well. Syon House takes its name from Zion, the Hebraic name for Jerusalem. Even before the house was built, it was the site of a convent that was subsequently seized by Henry VIII at the Dissolution of the Churches. The property was given to the Duke of Somerset. Thereafter a grizzly series of killings followed prominent owners of the home for several were beheaded in those turbulent political times. Eventually, the house fell into the hands of the Dukes of Northumberland and it is to the 12th Duke of Northumberland that it currently belongs though he and his family spend most of their time in Alynwich (pronounced 'An-wick') Castle near Yorkshire and keep "a set of apartments" at Syon House for use during the summer months. We could see why. The house has no heating apart from the occasional fireplace and it was freezing!

The main attractions of the property today are the 18th century interior design of the famed Robert Adam and the gardens designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. It is the vast grounds that strike the visitor first when one drives through the main gates. Though it is possible to get to Syon House and Park using public transport (Tube to Gunnersbury, then bus 237 or 267 to Syon Lane from where one can walk to the main gates), it was such a luxury to have Janie drive us right to the Visitor Center. The lawns look 'au natural' though carefully landscaped for Capability Brown's scheme was to deliberately create a pastoral environment in which sheep and cattle were strategically placed to seem as if they were in the wilderness. The River Thames that winds nearby was also incorporated into this design and the effect, I have to say, was utterly bucolic.

From the outside, Syon House could not look plainer. Indeed, it appears like a rather squat sandstone castle with very little exterior appeal. But appearances are so deceptive. Pass through the portico and wham! The effect is so unexpectedly charming as to leave one wanting to know more. Fortunately, it is at this point that helpful guides hand over audio guides that provide such a wealth of architectural and decorative detail as to leave every question answered. The Main Salon, a Robert Adam masterpiece, is subdued in shades of buff and off white but entirely proportioned and designed in Classical terms--a result of Adams' stay in Italy for a long period of time.

The antechamber adjoining the Main Salon is a true stunner. Lavish use of pure gilding on a large number of plaster statues as well as minute plaster details on the walls and ceiling leave the visitor breathless. The more one inspects the littlest detail, the more is one impressed by the overall conception of design and the mastery of execution. In this room, it is the floor that is most unusual for the pietra dura inlay common on smaller surfaces is rarely seen in so large a space. This room also showcases the visual tricks that Adam played with the human eye in making a rectangular room seem like a perfect square.

From there we passed into the dining room, devoid of a table and chairs but filled with the most arresting paintings depicting personages associated with the house over the centuries. It is this room that has been reproduced in New York. Its most striking feature is the six niches in the wall that hold the sculptures of Roman god and goddesses. Light from the outside fills this room. Here the carpet is the most significant item but, unfortunately, it had been removed for cleaning during our visit.

The next room is the Long Gallery so-called because in centuries past, residents of the property used it as a space in which to take their exercise on days when the weather did not permit outdoor activity. Though oil paintings line both sides of the walls in this room, it is the ceiling that is the most spectacular aspect featuring rondels painted to depict Classical figures from Greek and Roman mythology. The entire room is covered with gilded plasterwork in the Greek honeysuckle pattern, a rather feathery depiction of a flower.

Just next door to the Long Gallery was the most charming room of all--a tiny round very feminine room whose walls and ceiling were covered with exquisite off white plasterwork on a background of pastel pink and mint green. In the center hung a bird's cage, with a mechanical canary who whistled softly and musically. The effect was purely enchanting

A peep into the study occupied by the 10th and 11th Dukes brought us into the 20th century with a black Bakelite telephone and other contemporary touches. There was another corridor that contained portraits of England's kings and queens done in rather stylized fashion. What struck me was that none of the many accoutrements that filled these rooms was in the slightest state of disrepair. Everything is in pristine condition hinting at careful conservation and meticulous care.

Upstairs, we saw the rooms once occupied by a young Princess Victoria and the bedroom next door that had been her mother's. For me, one of the highlights of this visit was an opportunity to see one of the bedrooms that had been used in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, my favorite movie of all time! This was the scene in which Kristin Scott-Thomas gets cozy with Ryan Phillipe, a rather sensual scene. Though the drapes at the windows and the bed hangings on the four poster bed were supplied by the Sets Manager of the film, the rest of the furniture in the room was kept exactly as it was in the film and I cannot wait to see the movie again to inspect the room as it appears in the frames.

The most interesting part of the outside of the house was the Grand Conservatory, built between 1800 and 1820 by Charles Fowler and providing the model for what would ultimately become the Crystal Palace. The iron work on this building has to be seen to be appreciated. The dome towers above the viewer on stately iron columns whose masculinity is softened by the abundance of clear white glass in the panes.

Seeing the house and being spellbound by its interiors made me feel as if it was truly worth the long wait. Looking across the vast acreage that forms part of the estate, it is impossible to believe that the city of London is only a few miles away, so tucked away in the countryside does the house appear. But then this was precisely what Capability Brown wanted to achieve. And it is clear from a visit to this estate that he succeeded brilliantly!

On the way back, we passed along the banks of the Thames through the charming little village of Old Isleworth (pronounced "I-zil-worth"). It was filled with listed homes and pubs and its avenues were lined with established trees. On this crisp autumn afternoon, the effect was thoroughly pleasing and I have little doubt I will remember this excursion for a long time to come.

Back in London, I went out in search of Lonely Planet Greece in order to start planning the preparing for our proposed holiday in Greece during my fall break in November. Janie suggested I visit Stanford, a bookstore on Long Acre Road near Covent Garden that is devoted entirely to travel books. I found it very easily indeed and cannot even begin to tell you how delighted I was by this new discovery. This is easily going to become one of my favorite places in London. Imagine an entire bookstore devoted to the sales of travel tomes! What a paradise for anyone bitten by the travel bug! I found books galore, but also antique maps, journals, globes and other associated travel merchandise that would gladden the heart of any travel buff.

London is lovely and after a day like this,I feel blessed to be here. Despite having done a fair amount of work in the one month since I arrived here , I still feel as if I am on vacation. And what a priceless feeling that is indeed!

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