London Museum Challenge #13: Syon House
June 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
Among the museums on my list (and now that I’m getting stuck into the stately homes and gardens, ‘museum’ has to be used somewhat loosely), Syon House falls into the same category as the Geffrye Museum – so close, but yet so far. What’s more embarrassing is the length of time I’ve been casting a wishful and/or procrastinating eye on it: you see, I’ve been visiting Kew Gardens on a fairly regular basis ever since my first sojourn in London thirteen years ago, and every time I’ve walked up to the end of the oak-lined path to the river and seen Syon House floating like a ship adrift in its water meadow on the opposite bank, I’ve thought, ‘next time…’
What’s more perplexing about how long it’s taken me to get there is that Syon House forms part of my earliest image of England. Years before I ever made it across the pond – I think I must have been in middle school – I borrowed a video from my local library of a programme on English stately homes presented by, if memory serves, John Julius Norwich. (Yes, unusual fare for an eleven-year-old, but I was a rather odd child…) One of the featured houses was Syon House. For years, the mention of England would conjure up for me, not just the usual associations (Big Ben, double-decker buses) but Syon’s elegant Robert Adam Great Hall with the Dying Gaul and the Apollo Belvedere confronting each other across the black-and-white marble floor.
The exterior does nothing to prepare you for such splendour. If any house could ever be said to exemplify the adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Syon House is it: the exterior is almost defiantly plain, no ornamentation apart from the castellated roofline, not a single curve or flourish to break its stern geometry. The aforementioned Great Hall – the first room you enter – comes as a shock, although its purity was sadly marred by the entrance desk (couldn’t they have found a less obtrusive place to put it?).
The rest of the Adam rooms are similarly breathtaking, and also – for a designer whose name is all but synonymous with neoclassicism – surprisingly playful. Large gilt statues of gods and fauns dance around you in the anteroom; some of the ceiling medallions in the Red Drawing Room are surprisingly risqué (was that the artist getting his own back at Adam, who had refused to pay him what he thought his due?). One of the closets off the Long Gallery is decorated in powdery pinks and blues with such ornate plasterwork that after a couple of minutes I began to feel as if I were trapped inside a petit four.
Once out of the Adam rooms, though, things began to pall. The décor gradually became less interesting and more oppressive, and the parade of portraits by Lely, Kneller, Dahl et al. was so tedious that by the time I made my way through the last roomful of them, I was desperate to escape.
Luckily, unlike last weekend, it was a gorgeous summer day – the first proper one – and the gardens were calling. The first, and only really formal part of them, is the conservatory, a graceful creation (designed by Charles Fowler, the architect of Covent Garden Market, and apparently an inspiration to Joseph Paxton when he was designing the Crystal Palace) whose glass-and-metal framework and skin reminded me of a dragonfly’s wings. Unlike the conservatories at Kew, filled with a riot of vegetation, the Syon conservatory is just sparsely planted enough that neither the plants nor the architecture overwhelm the other.
The rest of the garden is of the type that only England does really well – planned down to the last detail to look completely natural and informal. Apart from a rather bizarre 18th-century statue of Flora surveying the gardens from atop a massive column, it is more or less devoid of statuary, follies or other obvious human interference – just massive trees, a shady lake, and paths winding among little flower gardens that somehow manage to look as if they’d sprung up by chance. Wandering along the paths, pausing at several of the well-placed benches to read and watch the water throwing reflected light on the trees, was the perfect way to celebrate the very long-awaited arrival of summer. I think if I go back, I’ll skip the house and spend the day in the gardens with a picnic (as I saw quite a few people doing).
Visitors aren’t allowed into the water meadow (fair enough), but I did manage to catch a glimpse from the top floor of the house out across the meadow… to Kew. It wasn’t easy to see the oak allée from that vantage point, but I did see a fair few visitors milling about near the river. I couldn’t help wondering if any among them were gazing across the river thinking wistfully that one of these days, they really ought to visit Syon House…
Tally: 13 down, 10 to go