Where better to be on a sunny Sunday morning than Syon House in leafy southwest London? Rolling bucolic parkland, pretty birds tweeting in the ancient oaks, wild flowers springing in the meadows, and planes thundering overhead to Heathrow. Aside from the flight path latticing the blue sky with white streaks, all is calm. Dr Adriano Aymonino, former Head of Research at the intriguingly named Commission for Looted Art in Europe, is our leader. Us, being in this case, the Young Irish Georgians. Private apartments are included on the tour.
We will discover that so much about the interior decoration is lost on the casual 21st century visitor. The nuances, the symbolism, the references that would have been read by Georgian guests. It’s like reading Shakespeare – Adriano is no mere guide. He’s our translator, helping us decipher the intricate language of 18th century design. It helps that his doctorate was on the 1st Duke of Northumberland who transformed Syon House in the 1760s. Adriano’s book is due out soon. “My heart lies at Syon,” he confesses.
“The 1st Duke was the greatest patron of the 18th century when you add all his houses together. Syon House is the most famous neoclassical house in the world,” argues Adriano, “and the Long Gallery is easily Robert Adam’s most spectacular interior. It is the most complex Georgian room in England.” Standing outside, the house is remarkably simple, stark almost, save for the toy battlements. All that will change when the front doors are flung open and Adam’s circuit of staterooms is revealed.
“Adam was a very clever businessman. He wanted to conquer the mid 18th century British market, dispelling the old Palladian architects by selling a new language. Adam claimed to be faithful to classical antiquity. That was not quite true as his could style could be eclectic but that’s how he marketed it. His language works, though, from St Petersburg to the USA. It’s a quotation architecture of ornament, statues, relief and sarcophagi.” Adriano identifies two layers of quotation: the Roman originals from the Grand Tour and later published engravings. “A paper architecture!”
The plasterwork frieze in the Piranesiesque Great Hall incorporates a vase, the symbol of friendship and welcome. It’s part of the language of iconographical consistency, we learn. Together with the layering of quotation, Adam creates a jigsaw puzzle of classical references rid of Renaissance influences. It’s a game of recognition, providing meaning to the more sophisticated guest. A triumphal procession has begun. The Great Hall is the introduction to the public circuit. A ‘Roman villa’ built round a courtyard.
The paintings at Syon House aren’t part of Adam’s concept. They come from the family’s central London townhouse of Northumberland House. It was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.
“Each room is intended to be a single hall, the opposite of Palladianism and its consistency of rooms such as at Chiswick House or Holkham Hall,” expounds Dr Aymonino. “Rather than a simple whole, each unit is different from the other. There is no better example in Britain of this than the transition from the Great Hall to the Ante Room next door. This is the Adam principle of contrast, movement, variety in a house. So you have this kind of wow effect! The sequence of classical orders is the only unifier, the element which gives logic to the circuit.” The Young Irish Georgians are primed to spot Doric in the Great Hall | Ionic in the Ante Room | Corinthian in the Dining Room | Composite in the Red Drawing Room and so on and so forth.
Poor old Sir William Chambers. His Palladianism soon became as passé as postmodernism is today, bless. We are ushered into the Ante Room. “It’s very exuberant, the Versace of Syon!” Absolutely. “Adam is a great genius decorator. Syon’s architecture is a collection of Roman typologies. The Dining Room is based on a basilica. But the Drawing Room is the least classical. With its red brocade silk walls there is not much space for quotations. Just the coffered ceiling.” Comfort over style. Sir William Chambers criticised the roundels in the ceiling for looking like floating dinner plates. Architects bitching? Shock, horror! The forerunner to 21st century Design Review Panels.
“Syon is the result of the Grand Tour industry. The statues would have been as recognisable as Warhol is today,” Adriano continues unabated. “He was first and foremost a decorator concerned with ideal beauty, harmony, proportion and decorum. I will never be tired of explaining the importance of printed sources. Far from Rome? Just open a book of prints!” With bated breath we enter the Long Gallery, the most important room in the house in our leader’s opinion.
The 1st Duke commissioned Adam to revamp this Jacobean long gallery. “Anyone else would have physically divided up the space. It is very difficult to master. There is the risk the eye gets bored of repetition.” Instead, Adam treats it as a columbarium with niches and massive piers providing rhythm. A visual trick on the ceiling is that the pattern of circles set in octagons continues incomplete to either side. “This counteracts the narrow width and low ambient. It’s like a carpet on the ceiling!” Once again, there are plenty of 18th century publications on Roman columbaria. Painted roundels over the bookcases show the ancestral glories of the family from Charles the Great to the 1st Duke and Duchess – who else? It was carried on in the 19th century by future family members. “This is a different layer of complexity,” observes Adriano. “It’s a very clever use of English family history with references to Roman antiquity.”
Late afternoon, after lunch, we will wander through the private apartments, unaccompanied, unroped, unAdamed but – oops! – not unalarmed.
Over scampi and chips in The London Apprentice pub – appropriately rebuilt in the 18th century, while admiring the view across the Thames towards Kew, Adriano relates he’s half Roman, half Venetian. “Venice has become such a difficult place to visit. So crowded. It’s not a real city anymore – ordinary shops now just sell masques to tourists. February is the best time to go, even if it is foggy then.” Goodness. Ever been chased by a cloaked red dwarf? “No, but you could still fall in the canal.”