An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 151

Clinton Howell Antiques - Octpber 18, 2021- Issue 151
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The dissolution of the monasteries ordered by Henry the VIII between 1536-41 was Henry's method of undermining the Pope's influence (Clement VII) on Henry's personal choices--namely, divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry's goal was to diminish the power of the Pope in England and to establish himself as the head of the church. Interestingly, Henry was a good Catholic and he equivocated about translating the Bible into English. He even tortured and executed a number of Protestants. The key issue, of course, was autonomy, not religion, but seizing the monasteries disestablished, for the most part, the Catholic Church's power in England. One of the richest of the seized monasteries was in West London at what is now known as Syon House and Park. It was leased by Henry and by 1593, Syon was part of the ninth Earl (the family's Dukedom dates from 1750) of Northumberland's estates in London. And, in 1762, it became one of Robert Adam's earliest commissions in London.

I first visited Syon House after a visit to Crowther's of Syon Lodge, dealers in all manners of stone and metalwork, from chimney pieces to garden ornaments as well as all manners of architectural elements from doors to plasterwork, wrought iron gates and much, much more. I was at the London College of Furniture at the time and I felt as if I'd walked into a museum--there was just so much stuff--it could have been a primer on architectural ornament as there were so many styles represented in the chimney pieces alone! But the Crowthers were only in Syon Lodge, not the house, and going into the house was the real eye opener. As it happens, Syon was the very first Adam house that I visited which, I might add, is one way to be bitten by the desire to know just who Robert Adam was. The totality of Adam's design work strikes you right away and it is hard to imagine one person being so very obsessed with every last detail. But even more interesting is that Adam took a sixteenth century monastery with lots of long corridors, and made them work as neoclassical galleries. (If you saw and remember "The Madness of King George IV", there is a scene shot in The Long Gallery where a minister is exiting the presence of the King, someone you never turned your back on, by walking backwards away from the King--it is a very, very long. corridor.)

The color palate of Adam's painted rooms seems to be redefined at every house that gets substantial restoration and scientific analysis of paint chips. However, the one room that has always retained its color palate in Syon is the Ante Room (the second room you walk into when touring the house--the black and white entryway being pretty fantastic) which is a paean to Roman excess with its marquetry and parquetry pietra dure as well as its marble columns with gilded statues. The rest of the house settles into what we recognize as Adam colors, far more muted and harmonious. There is a white and gold room which bespeaks glamor, but not the harmonic tones Adam achieves with paint. The furniture includes a number of good neoclassical console tables, some rare chair designs, several of which I have owned over the years, but Adam also brought furniture from Italy for the Duke suggesting that Adam's relationship wit the top London cabinetmakers was still evolving at this early juncture of his career. As much as some of the furniture is wonderful and of great interest, what I draw from the house--my last visit was about ten years ago--is how Adam grabbed the opportunity to make a statement of his capabilities. Clearly, Robert Child, the owner of Osterley House, realized just how dazzling a house could be after visiting Syon. Adam's career is just fascinating for his willingness to try new things, or at least try things that he had seen in Italy and then translated for the English nobility and wealthy. He was, without doubt, a canny Scot. The Ante Room at Syon--color unrestrained, not like Robert Adam at all. An interesting read regarding Adam and Syon.  Interior shots of Syon.