The Nun of Sion, with the Friar of Shean,
Went under water to play the Quean.

Walking through the palatial rooms of Syon House feels like being in a movie – Altman’s Gosford Park or Assante’s Belle, possibly. Not so surprising, since both were filmed here at Syon House, a few miles south west of Westminster on the north bank of the Thames. The feeling of déjà vu remains a motive for this visit.

Greco-Roman splendour

I entered the Great Hall twice, going back outside and in again through the porte cochere, just for the sheer pleasure of being greeted by grandeur: the height of the ceiling, the antique statues on pedestals, the bold black and white pattern on the floor. Robert Adam’s brief was “to create a palace of Greco-Roman splendour” – and he certainly met, if not exceeded his client’s expectations. Although the most brilliant architect of his time, Adam was commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland to remodel the existing structure of Syon House, not design a new one. He did that with characteristic panache, overcoming the challenges, making the most of existing structure and never skimping on embellishments.

The Great Hall is a fine example of this approach: the Doric columns of a Roman basilica, the ceiling pattern echoing the marble floor, the pale cream decorative stucco work (originally white). The four statues of Aphrodites, Scipio, Julia Domna and Cassius are on pedestals designed by Adam. They are presided over by a copy of Apollo Belvedere, standing majestically at one end of the Hall. At the other end, dramatically slumping on his fallen shield, a copy of the Dying Gaul by Valadier. The 1st Duchess of Northumberland paid £300 for the sculpture and had to wait (impatiently) for nine years until the patina rendered it the required colour. This grand room was designed not just as a space for an impressive neoclassic collection, but as a functional setting for day-to-day activities. This is where the guests arrived, the footman collected their coats before they walked into the ante-room; it was important that the guests should be impressed by opulence and good taste.

The Duke of Northumberland’s request for “Greco-Roman splendour” at Syon would not have been considered unusual by an 18th century architect. The art of ancient Greece and Rome which has provided endless inspiration for painters and sculptors from Renaissance onward, was particularly influential during the “Age of Reason” or the Enlightenment – a period defined by some historians between the science revolution and the French Revolution. The movement known as Neoclassicism was born during this time. Like any new generation, neoclassic artists were rebelling against preceding style, against the curves, ornaments and asymmetry predominant in Baroque and Rococo. The new values were order, simplicity and symmetry – just like nature itself. In England the rich and powerful surrounded themselves with land and commissioned country houses with a distinctive Italianate architecture. On their walls hang painting that represented picturesque (i.e. looking like a picture) landscapes.

The idea of applying the characteristics of nature to art led Adam to introduce what he called “movement” in architecture. Movement meant an expression of rise and fall, advance and retreat, convexity and concavity in the different parts of the building, making the composition similar to the hills and dales we see in a landscape.

And so I naturally moved from the Great Hall up two small flights of stairs into the Ante Room and was dazzled by the riot of gold and vivid colouring. Twelve Ionic columns, veneered with verd-antique scagliola, were brought from Rome to Syon House by boat in 1765. The room is not exactly a square, but Adam has cleverly positioned the columns, clear of the wall on one side, to create the effect of a cube with the minimum loss of floor space. The circles, octagons and floral decoration on the floor reinforces the square pattern of this room. The floor is also finished in highly polished scagliola – a decorative technique that mixes plaster with glue and dyes which is then painted or polished to create an imitation marble or other stone, popular in the second half of the 18th century and beyond.

Dining in style

The Ante-room may have also been used as a smaller dining room, but important repasts were held in the State Dining Room next door. Completed in 1763, it is quintessentially Adam and a testimony to his architectural philosophy – “to parade the conveniences and the social pleasures of life”. “In England, eating rooms are apartments of conversation, in which we are to pass a great part of our time… ” and must be “fitted up with elegance and splendour… finished with stucco, and adorned with statues and paintings, that they may not retain the smell of the victuals… ”

Marble statues of Ceres and Bacchus suggest that this is a place for food and drink, but the room was suitable for other forms of entertaining, like music or dancing. On marble top pier tables from early Adam period, gilded candelabra enhance the atmosphere. A system of trestle tables allowed for flexible seating arrangements for many diners, and when not required they could be stored on hooks in a concealed cupboard off the dining room – another of Adam’s space saving tricks.

This is the most conventional of the state rooms – all elegant and white and gold – which most closely reflects Adam’s early style. Corinthian columns are used to great effect to section the length, and give the impression of width to a rather narrow room – creating a beautifully balanced triple cube.

Entertainment for the ladies

Onto the Red Drawing Room, where the ladies would retire after dinner, leaving the gentlemen to have their port and cigars. Here the materials covering the walls and ceilings are even richer. Crimson Spitalfields silk adorning the walls, a carpet designed by Adam and made by Moore of Moorefields on the floor, gilded mirrors and exquisite pier tables are here to create a feeling of luxurious comfort, but the room’s piece de resistance is the ceiling. Having rejected a simple white and gold pattern, Northumberland selected the more elaborate design, with its diamond and octagon medallions featuring classical figures. In total 239 medallions painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani at a cost of two guineas each.

As part of the remodelling of Syon House, Adam constructed the Dining room and the Drawing room by replacing four smaller rooms and a staircase. To obtain the height required by the larger rooms, he took some space from the bedroom floor above.

The last of the state rooms is a masterly adaptation of a very long Jacobean Gallery which he transformed into a unified and coherent space, by the clever use of wall and ceiling motifs. At over 41 metres long and about one tenth of that wide, it is a room most architects would have divided. Instead Adam created a library, museum and withdrawing room “to afford great variety and amusement to the ladies”. Were the ladies amused by the secret door camouflaged as a bookcase, the small boudoirs, the mechanical singing bird, the concave and convex mirrors? Or were they looking through one of the eleven windows towards the river, beyond the ha-ha, dreaming of escape?