Heston and Isleworth: Syon House

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 3, Shepperton, Staines, Stanwell, Sunbury, Teddington, Heston and Isleworth, Twickenham, Cowley, Cranford, West Drayton, Greenford, Hanwell, Harefield and Harlington. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

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'Heston and Isleworth: Syon House', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 3, Shepperton, Staines, Stanwell, Sunbury, Teddington, Heston and Isleworth, Twickenham, Cowley, Cranford, West Drayton, Greenford, Hanwell, Harefield and Harlington, (London, 1962) pp. 97-100. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol3/pp97-100 [accessed 11 April 2024]

SYON HOUSE. (fn. 1)

Syon House, a three-storied structure of brick with some ashlar facings, square angle-turrets, and flat, lead-covered roofs surmounted by battlements, is built round a central, open courtyard about 80 feet square, and stands at an oblique angle to the Thames on the north of the village of Isleworth. Described in the 19th century as 'one of the most conspicuous ornaments of the county of Middlesex' and in the 20th as able to 'hold its own with the lesser palaces of the Continent', (fn. 2) Syon came into the possession of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, (fn. 3) on his marriage in 1594, and is the last of the great country houses in the environs of London to remain in the occupation of its ancestral owners.

The site was formerly occupied by the Abbey of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, the English Bridgettines. The community obtained the royal licence to remove from the site in the old manorial park (later Twickenham Park) which had been granted it at its establishment in 1415 and the foundation stone was laid on 5 February 1426. (fn. 4) By the foundation charter of 1415 the abbey was to be composed of an abbess and 59 nuns, with 25 religious men, of whom 13 were to be priests, 4 deacons, and 8 laymen. The brothers and sisters lived in separate courts but shared a common church, with the brothers' choir at the west end and the sisters' raised choir at the east end. The Bridgettines moved to Isleworth on 11 November 1431 but evidence exists of the expenditure of £6,266 17s. 3d. on building for the church, cloisters, dormitory, chapter house, and smithy between 1461 and 1479, and the church was not consecrated until 1488, so that the buildings must have been far from completed when the community moved. (fn. 5)

In the absence of any adequate archaeological investigation or of the survival of any considerable documentary record, the layout of the abbey is not clearly known. The ancient boundary of the abbey grounds is recorded in a deed of composition of 1474, (fn. 6) but no description is known to be extant of the buildings and little medieval work is incorporated in the present house. The west range contains two rooms, of two and three bays respectively, which formed part of the 15th-century undercroft of the abbey, (fn. 7) and in dry weather foundations may be traced beneath the turf of the lawns to the east and south. Apart from this, the central courtyard is believed to represent the nuns' cloister, and the entrance hall to mark the site of the refectory. (fn. 8) At the time of the reconstruction of the north range in 1824, a flight of stone steps and a passage were found beneath the basement floor between the servants' hall and the steward's room, but this was not traced farther, while the thirteen enriched oak panels dating from c. 1530, one of which bears the initials H.P. and the Percy badges and motto, in the duke's study on the first floor of the east range, have clearly been brought from elsewhere. (fn. 9)

Syon Abbey was suppressed in November 1539 (fn. 10) and the buildings were allowed to fall into some decay, though they were used as a place of confinement for Queen Katherine Howard from 14 November 1541 to 10 February 1542. (fn. 11) When the body of Henry VIII rested a night in the chapel on its way from Westminster to Windsor on 14 February 1547 special renovation was necessary. (fn. 12) The Duke of Somerset, to whom Syon was granted in 1547, (fn. 13) was responsible for the conversion of the monastic buildings into a Tudor mansion in substantially the form of the present house; the angle-turrets, with the exception of that at the north-west corner, are, though refaced externally, all of 16th-century brick and two very richly carved Gothic doorways were discovered between the first and second windows of each of the towers in the west range at the reconstruction of the house in 1824. (fn. 14) Under Mary the Bridgettine community, though depleted by death and desertion during years of exile, re-formed at Syon and the rebuilding of two sides of the monastery, which had been pulled down, was undertaken at the expense of Sir Francis Englefield. (fn. 15) One of the first Acts of Elizabeth's reign dissolved the few monastic houses which had been restored by Mary, and the house again returned to the Crown. It appears to have been little used until Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, secured the lease in 1594. (fn. 16) Elizabeth I is known to have paid four brief visits to Syon between 1576 and 1594, but none of them lasted more than a few hours (fn. 17) and examination of the Crown accounts suggests that little in the way of repairs or new building took place at this time. (fn. 18)

It is possible to reconstruct the general appearance of Syon House in the late 16th century from an inventory of 1593, a contemporary undated ground plan, and an early-17th-century painting of the west front. (fn. 19) The house is shown on the painting to have been then, as now, three-storied, faced with stone and battlemented, with four square angle-turrets; but there stood then to the north and south of the west front two brick buildings, that on the north incorporating the kitchen and that on the south, referred to in the inventory as the gatehouse, incorporating a series of lodgings. The west range of the house was largely occupied by the great hall, with two entrances on the west side in place of the modern central entrance; the buttery and pantry were on either side of a lobby leading to the angle-turret at the north end of the hall. At the south end, a narrow transverse lobby opened upon the stairs leading to the great chamber. The central courtyard was entered by two doors, one in the north-east corner of the hall and the other at the east end of this lobby. The south range of the house had windows looking on to both the court and the grounds, where today the windows look out only to the grounds. It contained the great chamber, occupying a position roughly corresponding with that of the modern ante-room; the presence chamber; the privy chamber; and the withdrawing chamber. The east range was divided longitudinally, as it still is, the long gallery occupying the east front and extending almost its whole length, given on the ground-plan as 130 feet between the angle-turrets. The long gallery had 86 windows on the east side, and the west wall was divided by three doorways and two fireplaces in exactly similar positions to those in the gallery now. The courtyard side of the east range contained a number of small rooms, with a central opening upon the court, both characteristics which it retains. The court was the scene of two remarkable events in the first years of the reign of James I. These were the presentation of William Percy's 'The Faery Pastorall' on the occasion of the king's visit on 8 June 1603, when the earl spent some £364 19s. on a banquet, (fn. 20) and the conversation between the earl and his confidential servant, Thomas Percy, on 4 November 1605, which was used as evidence of the earl's implication in the Gunpowder Treason. (fn. 21)

The household accounts of the 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632) survive almost intact (fn. 22) and make it clear that he executed only minor repairs during the first decade of his occupation, but undertook a major reconstruction after James I had granted the freehold to him in 1604. (fn. 23) A special commission appointed in 1604 to consider, inter alia, 'what the charge and reparations of the house of Syon have [been] and were likely to be yearly', reported the house to be in decay, needing a hundred marks a year for repairs and maintenance. (fn. 24) By 1613 the earl was able to claim that he had spent £9,000 on the estate and that 'the house itself, if it were to be pulled down and sold by view of workmen, would come to £8,000. If any man, the best husband in building, should raise such another in the same place, £20,000 would not do it'. (fn. 25) Between 1604 and 1606 alone, the earl spent more than £3,000 on Syon House. Stone fireplaces were put in all the main rooms, windows renewed in many, the principal chambers fretted and wainscotted, and part of the brick buildings pulled down and rebuilt. A new brick wall to the west of the brickhouse (presumably the kitchen) was erected, which may be identified with the wall now dividing the west lawn from the stable-yard, and the two lodges in front of the west lawn were built (see plate facing p. 90). (fn. 26) These lodges, recorded in 1872 as formerly occupied by the bailiff and gate-porter, have been refaced but retain some original two-light windows, and the north lodge has some original doors and panelling. (fn. 27) A further £1,903 15s. 8d. was spent in the years 1607-13 to provide, in addition to minor works, a new suite of rooms for the countess including a bath-house which was fully equipped, a new set of stairs for the hall, and a number of outbuildings, including a coach-house, a brewhouse, and a laundry. In 1609 work was in hand on the battlementing of the house and on the paving of the courtyard, and in 1616-19 new stables were built at the north-west of the main house and an 'evidence house' fitted with wainscot presses was constructed to the north of the house. (fn. 28) Some of the outbuildings to the north of the house contain work from about this period. (fn. 29)

The extent of the 9th earl's work was such that for more than a century his successors as owners of Syon were able to dispense with major repairs and rebuilding. The colonnade at the base of the east front, reputedly the work of Inigo Jones, was added in the time of the 10th Earl of Northumberland (d. 1668), and the date formerly on the rain-heads of the house, 1659, indicates that he also carried out a restoration of the plumbing. (fn. 30) The younger children of Charles I were in the custody of the 10th earl at Syon in 1646 and 1647 and the king saw much of them both there and at Hampton Court during his imprisonment in the palace. (fn. 31) Charles, Duke of Somerset (d. 1748), refurnished the house but had no occasion to rebuild at Syon as he did at Petworth. He also had a royal guest in the house: in 1692 he allowed the Princess Anne to use Syon as a temporary residence; a famous altercation between Queen Mary and her sister occurred there on 17 April. (fn. 32)

Sir Hugh Smithson, later 1st Duke of Northumberland, who succeeded to Syon in 1750, (fn. 33) employed the brothers Adam at Syon between 1762 and 1769, and executed the most important of all Syon's restorations. Robert Adam has recorded: 'Some inequality in the levels on the old floors, some limitations from the situation of the old walls, and some want of additional heights to the enlarged apartments, were the chief difficulties with which I had to struggle.' (fn. 34) The floor of the hall is considerably lower than that of the other apartments, but this is concealed cleverly at the north end by a great apse with a door which hides a flight of steps and at the south by a recess screened by Doric columns within which steps rise to the ante-room door. The hall, decorated in black and white, has a strong architectural treatment inspired by the work of Piranesi (see plate facing p. 100); the ante-room, by contrast, is the most richly coloured of Adam's rooms which survive, with verd-antique columns, gilt Ionic capitals and statuettes, an entablature with a honeysuckle frieze on a blue ground, gilded trophies on the walls, and the whole reflected in a polished scagliola floor, one of the earliest uses of the material in England. The hall is almost of double cube proportions (66 feet by 31 by 34 high); the anteroom is actually 30 feet wide by 36 feet long, but by standing the columns away from the south wall Adam created the effect of a square room. He heightened the state rooms along the south wing, but retained their other proportions. The diningroom, finished in stucco and adorned with statues in place of damask or tapestry that it might 'not retain the smell of the victuals', (fn. 35) is some 66 feet long but only 21 feet high and wide; for picturesqueness, he placed apses at each end, with ornamented halfdomes and screens of columns. Where white and gold predominate in the dining-room (the deep colouring of the statue niches was not part of Adam's plan), the red drawing-room is a profusion of rich colour, with plum-red Spitalfields silk damask on the walls, a specially designed carpet executed by Thomas Moore of Moorfields in 1769 on the floor, and an elaborate ceiling with wooden medallions painted by Cipriani. This replaced the original plan for a simpler ceiling in white and gold to match the pattern of the carpet, as so many of Adam's ceilings match the floors. (fn. 36) The fireplace of this room was made to Adam's designs by Matthew Boulton; both this and the ivory pilasters of the Spanish mahogany doorcases are decorated in ormolu. The doors of all the rooms on the south wing's principal floor are so placed that a vista of the entire front may be obtained when they are open. In the long gallery Adam contented himself with a masterly redecoration which has been acclaimed his greatest work; he described it as 'finished in a style to afford great variety and amusement'. (fn. 37) The ceiling is set out with circles down its length of 136 feet; each circle is held in an octagonal framework separated from the next by a square. Horizontal unity is achieved by cross-lines which tend to expand the apparent width of a room which is in fact no more than 14 feet wide and high; vertical unity is given by a series of 62 pilasters painted by Pergolesi. Secret closets open from the gallery at either end.

The plans which Adam made for the conversion of the north range and for the building of a central rotunda or great circular saloon in the courtyard were never carried out. The 3rd Duke of Northumberland (d. 1847) restored the house in 1824, providing a corridor along the north range to give access to the private apartments there, adding the portico entrance on the west front, building a riding school and constructing in the grounds a conservatory, with a dome of more than 60 feet and a frontage of 380 feet, to the designs of Charles Fowler. His brother, the 4th duke (d. 1865), redecorated the private apartments in the north range (the breakfast-room, dining-room, and green drawing-room), as well as the print room which leads directly out of the long gallery, giving each a richly embellished ceiling from the design of Monteroli; the work was carried out by Charles Smith of Upper Baker Street in 1863-4. The only other notable development in modern times was the removal of a fine chimney-piece of 'Bossi' inlay and ormolu to the green drawing-room, and of the Percy lion after the model of Michelangelo to the roof of the east front, both brought from Northumberland House, Charing Cross, at the time of its demolition in 1874. (fn. 38)

Adam's decorations provided an admirable background for the social life of the first duchess, a favourite of Queen Charlotte, and her household books survive to give testimony to the lavishness of her hospitality, but perhaps the most outstanding reception of royalty at Syon occurred in the time of the 3rd duke, when William IV came on 31 July 1832. It was a time of popular demonstration over the parliamentary Reform Bill but the king was given a remarkable welcome both by the people of Isleworth and by the duke. (fn. 39)

The park surrounding Syon House attained to its present size of 208 acres between the 16th and 19th centuries. At the Dissolution the wall round the abbey enclosed 30 acres of orchards and gardens. (fn. 40) On the river side the wall followed approximately the line of the present ha-ha. (fn. 41) Outside the wall, nearly all the land south of the London Road belonged to the manorial estate by the early 17th century. (fn. 42) In 1445 the abbey was said to have inclosed over 80 acres of meadow and pasture, at least part of which probably lay in this area. (fn. 43) The Earl of Northumberland purchased land in Syon Field, between the house and church, in 1604; (fn. 44) the whole field belonged to him and was inclosed by 1607. (fn. 45) Much of the present park, however, was leased at this time, and Lion Farm (formerly an inn, later Syon Farm) stood midway between the house and the London Road. (fn. 46) Lion Farm stood beside Syon Lane, which then extended south of the London Road towards the house, turning westwards opposite the farm and curving towards Isleworth church, while a drive ran from the turning to the house (see plate facing p. 90). (fn. 47)

The laying-out of the formal gardens within the wall round the house is traditionally attributed to the naturalist Dr. William Turner (d. 1568), whose Names of Herbes (1548) was dated at Syon; Turner was chaplain and physician to the Duke of Somerset and is said to have planted the mulberry trees by the east front. (fn. 48) Somerset was responsible for the building of a high triangular terrace, the remains of which are still visible in a mound planted with cedars to the south-east of the house. (fn. 49) The terrace and two orchards are shown clearly on the map of 1607 and there was an avenue of trees along the drive to Syon Lane; the 9th Earl of Northumberland is known to have carried out considerable garden works, including the planting of avenues to the south of the house. (fn. 50) The Duke of Somerset (d. 1748) planted more trees along the drive to Syon Farm and perhaps made the drive from Brentford End. (fn. 51) The 1st Duke of Northumberland employed 'Capability' Brown at Syon from 1767 to 1773, but had already accomplished many alterations within the grounds before this time. By 1761 he had demolished the garden walls, levelled the triangular terrace, and turned the gardens into a lawn bounded by a ha-ha. He planted shrubberies stocked with many foreign trees to the south and north of the house, erected a column (then surmounted by a statue of Flora) in the north shrubbery or botanical garden, and made the lake there. Brown must have been principally concerned with the west side of the park. (fn. 52) The changes made while he was employed included the closing of part of Syon Lane, which was replaced by the present Park Road, which leaves the London Road farther west and runs south to where, about two-thirds of the way to the church, it joins the old line of Syon Lane. (fn. 53) Syon Farm was pulled down, another lake was made, and a new drive was laid out. This crossed the lake by a bridge designed by Adam in 1768 and ended at the great gateway and screen built to Adam's designs in 1773. (fn. 54) The pavilion or boat-house was built by James Wyatt at this time. (fn. 55) The 3rd duke, who built the conservatory and other outbuildings, made the last important changes in the grounds. He redesigned the garden round the conservatory, introducing the large basin and fountain, acquired and later demolished the house by the London Road called Little Syon, and employed Richard Forrest to supervise the restoration of the botanical garden, adding many rare and tropical trees and shrubs to those already planted, so that by the middle of the 19th century Syon was noted horticulturally. (fn. 56)


  • 1. This section is by Mr. G. R. Batho.
  • 2. Aungier, Hist. of Syon, 116; J. Lees-Milne, Age of Adam, 107.
  • 3. The enumeration of the earls of Northumberland used in this article is that which is traditional in the family portraits and documents. The 9th earl according to this enumeration was the 3rd since the creation or restoration of 1557.
  • 4. J. R. Fletcher, Story of Eng. Bridgettines of Syon, 27; the charter is printed in Dugdale, Mon. vi. 542, and in translation in Aungier, op. cit. 25-30.
  • 5. Rot. Parl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 395; Fletcher, op. cit. 28.
  • 6. Deed of composition of 1474 printed in Aungier, Hist. of Syon, 136-8.
  • 7. Hist. Mon. Com. Mdx. 86.
  • 8. C. Hussey, 'Syon House, Middlesex', Country Life, 1 Dec. 1950, p. 1873.
  • 9. Alnwick Castle (penes Duke of Northumberland) MS. 758: 'Description of Syon House and Grounds by Thomas Williams, 1872', p. 5; Hist. Mon. Com. Mdx. 86.
  • 10. B. M. Cott. MS. Cleop. E. iv, f. 109, printed in Aungier, Hist. of Syon, 87-88.
  • 11. Holinshed's Chron. (1807-8 edn.), iii. 822.
  • 12. Archdeacon Harpsfield's Treatise on the Pretended Divorce between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon (Camd. Soc. 1878), p. 203.
  • 13. See p. 103.
  • 14. Alnwick Castle MS. 758, p. 1; Hist. Mon. Com. Mdx. 86.
  • 15. Fletcher, Story of Eng. Bridgettines, 41.
  • 16. See p. 104.
  • 17. E. Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, iv. 92, 100, 102, 108.
  • 18. E 351/3201-28.
  • 19. Syon Ho., MSS. H. I. 3; B. xiii, 2. c; and painting at the top of the frame of 'The Genealogy of Dukes of Brabant, &c.', in the north corridor, Syon House.
  • 20. Alnwick Castle, Syon MS. U. I. 3; M. H. Dodds, 'Financial affairs of a Jacobean gentleman', Arch. Aeliana, ser. 4, xxii. 97-100.
  • 21. S.P. 14/16/101; /17/10.
  • 22. Alnwick Castle, Syon MSS. U. I. 1-4.
  • 23. C 66/1648.
  • 24. E 178/4157, mm. 1, 3.
  • 25. Alnwick Castle, Syon MS. O. I. 2. c, f. 65.
  • 26. Ibid. U. I. 3.
  • 27. Alnwick Castle, MS. 758, p. 2.
  • 28. Alnwick Castle, Syon MSS. U. I. 3, 4.
  • 29. They are described in Hist. Mon. Com. Mdx. 86, 88. For other stables demolished c. 1790, see Aungier, Hist. of Syon, 124, 136.
  • 30. Hist. Mon. Com. Mdx. 86.
  • 31. E. B. de Fonblanque, Annals of house of Percy, ii. 458- 60; S.P. 16/515/107.
  • 32. D.N.B. xii. 1247; Aungier, op. cit. 115.
  • 33. See p. 104.
  • 34. Works of R. and J. Adam (1788, reprint 1900), i. 7.
  • 35. Ibid. i. 9.
  • 36. Sir John Soane's Museum, Adam engravings, vol. xi, no. 21.
  • 37. Works of R. and J. Adam, i. 9.
  • 38. Alnwick Castle, MS. 758, p. 5; Helen, Duchess of Northumberland's unpublished album of photographs, &c. concerning furnishings of Syon Ho.
  • 39. For the 1st duchess's hospitality, see Alnwick Castle, MS. 121/93, and J. Greig, Diaries of a Duchess, passim.
  • 40. L.R. 2/220, f. 186: the wall is shown most clearly in Syon Ho., MS. B. xxiii. 1. d. (1607), where, however, it contains 19 a.
  • 41. Cf. e.g. Syon Ho., MS. B. xiii. 1. d; Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond. (1746), and O.S. Map 1/2,500 Mdx. xx. 4 (1st edn.).
  • 42. Syon Ho., MSS. B. xiii. 1. a, d.
  • 43. S.C. 2/191/36, m. 6d.; for the Mere cf. e.g. C 133/95, no. 14. For Staunton Field, cf. William de Stanton's lands, perhaps partly here, p. 108.
  • 44. Syon Ho., MSS. D. xiv. 11. b, e.
  • 45. Ibid. B. xiii. 1. a.
  • 46. Glover, Map of Isleworth Hundred; cf. leases cited on p. 105, notes 54, 55.
  • 47. The exact course of the road is obscured by the comparative inaccuracy of the maps and the existence of other tracks of apparently varying names and courses nearby: Syon Ho., MSS. B. xiii. 1. a, d; xvii. 1. f; Glover, op. cit.; Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond. (1746).
  • 48. Alnwick Castle, MS. 758, p. 6.
  • 49. Aungier, Hist. of Syon, 92-93.
  • 50. Hist. MSS. Com. Salisbury, xvi. 360; cf. Syon Ho., MS. B. xiii. 1. a; see Evelyn's comment in 1665: Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. de Beer, iii. 415.
  • 51. Syon Ho., plan of house and gardens (1739); Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond. (1746); Hounslow Libr., Isleworth Vestry Order and Rate Book, 1654-1712, p. 432.
  • 52. B.M. Maps K. 30, 34. c (view, 1753); London and its environs (printed for R. and J. Dodsley, 1761), vi. 7 et seq.; Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, 140-2.
  • 53. See p. 87, maps cited in n. 33 above, and M.R.O., S.B. 1276, pp. 97-101.
  • 54. A. T. Bolton, Archit. of R. and J. Adam, i. 277; cf. Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Toynbee, vii. 231; viii. 313.
  • 55. Stroud, op. cit. 142; cf. Bolton, op. cit.
  • 56. Syon Ho., MS. D. xiv. 17. a; M.R.O., Isleworth Tithe Award; R. Forrest, Alphabetical List of Plants of Syon Garden (1831), and cf. A. Bruce Jackson, Catalogue of Hardy Trees and Shrubs at Syon House, Brentford (1910).