Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 23, 2013

Syon House

Syon House, located just outside of London, was built on the site of a 15th century abbey and was remodeled substantially in the mid-16th century and then again in the mid-18th century [1]. The estate has passed from generation to generation of the Northumberland family, each owner putting their own mark on the house and grounds. The interior as seen today was designed by the well-known Neoclassical architect Robert Adam in the 1760s, and the renowned Red Drawing Room has been the site of filming for both the 1996 version of Emma and briefly for the 2008 biopic Miss Austen Regrets.

Both the House of Tudor and the House of Stuart have connections to Syon House. Tudor queens Lady Jane Grey, Catherine Howard, and Catherine of Aragorn all spent time at the house, as well as Stuart king Charles I and his children. These illustrious royal connections are reflected in the impressive collection of royal portraits which decorate the interior of the house.

The Red Drawing Room is decorated with luxurious crimson Spitalfields silk brocade, which greatly enhances the series of Stuart royal family portraits displayed on the walls [2]. There include portraits of Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria, his daughter Henrietta, his second son the Duke of York, and his first son Charles II with his wife Catherine of Braganza. The whole family of Charles I seems to be depicted on the walls of the Red Drawing Room.


Typically, family portraits in a country house depict the relatives and ancestors of the owner, proudly displayed in drawing rooms or long galleries [3]. In the case of Syon House, however, the portraits are instead of the royal Stuart dynasty. These works reveal the Northumberland family's continued political allegiances and opinions [4]. The fact that even in a time of political strife and Civil War in England, these royal portraits still decorated the walls of the Red Drawing Room speaks to the owners' deeply felt alliances and ideals.


Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza

The most notable portrait in the Red Drawing Room depicts Charles I and his second son James, Duke of York. This was painted by Sir Peter Lely, and bought by the owner of Syon House, the 10th Earl of Northumberland, in 1647 to commemorate when several of the royal children stayed with him while Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Hampton Court Palace [5]. Charles I was still allowed to visit his children at Syon House, and this double portrait might have been painted by Lely during one of those visits. The 10th Earl paid only £20 for this work [5].


Miss Austen Regrets

There seems to be a visible sadness in the eyes of Charles I and his son James in Lely's portrait. Granted, times were hard for the monarchy in England during the mid-17th century, but surely neither individual could have predicted that Charles I would be executed less than two short years after being depicted here. As this portrait marks one of the rare occasions in which the imprisoned king was allowed to see his children, it is not surprising that it contains such a great amount of emotional intensity [6]. The two individuals are fully engaged with each other, not even glancing out to acknowledge the viewer. The billowing curtain and matching voluminous cloud provide a dramatic backdrop for a touching scene between father and son.

Charles I with James, Duke of York- Sir Peter Lely 1647


It is interesting that a country house with so many connections to past monarchs and representations of political alliances would be chosen to represent Hartfield in Emma. Regency architectural style was typically either Gothic or classical, as Syon House is; Hartfield is the only 'modern' Regency house in Jane Austen's novels, with its flowing and simple interiors [7]. Thus, Syon House does not seem to match Austen's own envisioning of the Emma's residence, and the obvious political slant of the Red Drawing Room does not seem to have any kind of parallel in the plot of Emma. However, the room is quite visually appealing and full of interesting history, so the use of Syon House as the backdrop for various period films is perhaps warranted after all.


[1] The National Heritage List for England. “Syon House.” Accessed April 23, 2013. http://list.english-
[2] Syon Park. “Red Drawing Room.” Accessed April 23, 2013. www.syonpark.co.uk/tour_red-drawing.asp.
[3] Hearn, Karen. In Celebration: the Art of the Country House. London: Tate Gallery, 1998.
[4] Musson, Jeremy. How to Read a Country House. London: Ebury Press, 2005.
[5] Syon Park. "History." Accessed April 23, 2013. www.syonpark.co.uk/history.asp#1400.
[6] Charlton-Jones, Richard. “Lely to Kneller 1650-1723.” In The British Portrait, 1660-1960, 81. Woodbridge, Suffolk:
               Antique Collectors’ Club, 1991.
[7] Watkins, Susan. Jane Austen's Town and Country Style. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

No comments:

Post a Comment