Friday, February 3, 2012

John Fowler's Paint Scheme At Syon House

A detail of John Fowler's paint scheme for the Circular Closet, Syon House.

One of the great 20th century colorists was legendary decorator John Fowler of Colefax and Fowler.  Especially after World War II, he bought many of England's Stately Houses back to life with fresh decorating schemes.  Often that meant raiding the attics for forgotten furnishings, and dyeing old damask table cloths and blankets to make new curtains.  But perhaps most of all, we should acknowledge Mr. Fowler's use of paint to redefine the English Country House Style.
A view of the entrance front of Syon House.

John Fowler was familiar with the pigments available in the 18th and 19th century and the paint colors that could be produced.  Also, he collected bits of historic fabrics and papers to color-match popular schemes of various periods.  However, from what this writer understands, he was not so interested in recreating original paint colors, but rather to present a scheme that best suited the room while keeping history in mind.  But The Devoted Classicist pays tribute to John Fowler's eye for color despite the disregard for specific historical accuracy considering the museum status of many of these houses.  (For those who missed The Devoted Classicist essay on the restoration of historic paint color for the Dining Room at Monticello, click here).
John Fowler's color samples for exterior paint for The Georgian Group, 1947.

John Fowler liked to name his colors.  Often they were linked to the house for which they were created, such as Ditchley White or Bowood Pink.  Sometimes the names were descriptive such as Sugar Bag Blue and Cooking Apple Green.  But Fowler got even more interpretive with Elephant's Breath, Shadow Colour, Straw Left Out In The Rain, and Mouse's Back.  And there were also imaginative names such as Caca du Dauphin and Vomitesse de la Reine.
Robert Adam's proposed plan for Syon House.  Several rooms, such as the central rotunda, were never realized.  The Circular Closet is in the upper left hand corner off the Long Hall.  The Great Hall, which serves as the entrance hall, is in the lower center of the plan.

At Syon House, in the London borough of Hounslow, a 1762-1769 renovation by Robert Adam enriched the interior for the 1st Duke of Northumberland although the whole scheme was never realized as proposed.  The property has a long and fascinating history with more information provided here.  The plan of the house is square with a central court and the principle rooms opening one after another as an enfilade.
The Circular Closet at Syon House showing John Fowler's paint scheme.

Adam rooms were originally often intensely colored, and the Circular Closet, in a turret at the end of the Long Gallery, pays tribute to this in Fowler's paint scheme.  The walls are a strong pink with the columns, freize, and banding in pale blue.  Blocks over the dado and the background of strips on the walls are darker blue.  The flutes of the capitals are pale pink and the egg-and-tongue above the frieze has just a hint of pink.  The mouldings and decorations that are not white are gilded.
Robert Adam's design for the Great Hall at Syon, shown in a 1776 drawing.
A vintage photo of the Great Hall at Syon House.
Photo:  A.F. Kersting, from

As remarkable as the decoration of this small space is, the Great Hall at Syon, the Entrance Hall of the house, was given even an even more articulated scheme to highlight the architecture.  Adam gave the space a bold black and white marble floor as a base for the strong Roman architectural features and decoration with marble statues and grisailles rondels.  The paint was a single dead white when the Duke of Northumberland asked John Fowler to devise a scheme to paint the room.
The Great Hall at Syon House showing John Fowler's scheme.
Photo:  Country Life.

The Great Hall at Syon showing Fowler's scheme.

The Great Hall at Syon showing Fowler's scheme.

Fowler's scheme for the Hall was a great triumph of variations of white and blue that changed as the natural light changed.  As descriptions of color can be so subjective, and photography has so many variables, the presentation here of the scheme will use the John Cornforth analysis from THE INSPIRATION OF THE PAST.
The Great Hall at Syon showing Fowler's Scheme.
Photo:  Christopher Simon Sykes.
The Great Hall at Syon shown Fowler's scheme.
Photo:  Christopher Simon Sykes.

Fowler specified the Great Hall's main story walls to be warm white that changed from pink to lilac, and the upper story walls to be cool white.  The background of the main frieze, the ring band of the columns, the frieze above the upper windows, and the coffers were grey-blue.  The baseboard/skirting was painted blue-grey and the dado grey-white.  The ceiling was painted the same grey-white for the main border, with banding and cross-ribs of warm white same as the walls with a darker tone of warm white for the background to the rosettes in the ribs and the big roses.  The pedestals and the panels below the windows have the same warm white as the walls brought lower for a subtle contrast to the dado.  That is seven colors for those keeping count with the painting executed by the regular workers on the estate.  Thanks to devoted reader Toby Worthington for the photos by Christopher Simon Sykes from GREAT HOUSES OF ENGLAND AND WALES.
A detail of the upper wall and ceiling of the Great Hall showing Fowler's scheme.

A detail of the pedestal with the dado and skirting beyond showing Fowler's scheme for the Great Hall.

A December, 2010, post on the blog of paint analyst/specialist Patrick Baty mentions that he conducted a survey of Fowler's paint scheme for the Hall that would allow the colors to be reproduced.  Mr. Baty says that eight colors were used in the Fowler scheme and that several were identical to the 1950s Range of colors from Papers and Paints.  However, an October, 2011, post on the same blog reports that the Fowler scheme was painted over with no regard to the survey.
One of the color charts of the 1950s Range from Papers and Paints.

The Devoted Classicist has not visited Syon since the repainting.  It is difficult to determine true colors from a computer monitor, but the current scheme is believed to be represented below, utilizing a sunnier scheme, more yellow than the blue-ish haze of the Fowler scheme.
The Great Hall at Syon House.
Photo from Google Images courtesy of devoted reader APB.

The current Duke of Northumberland is the second son of the tenth Duke, inheriting the title in 1995 when his older brother died of an accidental overdose.  The repainting is just one of many projects, of course, with the largest change being the construction of a 137-room hotel/conference center in the park;  part of the terms for planning approval were the completion of several restoration and conservation projects including the Adam oval and carriageway in front of Syon House and the Duchess Gate.  (During construction of the hotel, remains were found of an ancient Roman village that served the crossing of the Thames River).  Although Syon now serves as the Duke and Duchess's London residence, Northumberland House was formerly the city residence;  it was razed in 1874 to enlarge the area around Trafalgar Square.  Changes at their principle residence, Alnwick Castle, will be presented in the next post.
A view of Syon House before the Robert Adam renovation.


  1. Thanks so much yet again. I am partial to the yellow but I guess you have to be there through several cycles of lighting.

  2. if your mission was to 'INSPIRE'

    YOU HAVE!!


  3. Terry! John Fowler did a number of entrance halls in apricot-terra cotta, which would have been attractive for a warmer scheme, but I suppose he thought the cooler scheme was best. Of course, he was also considering the sequence in the progression of spaces.

  4. Thanks, Renee. Light and lighting, along with their effects on color, are too often neglected in architecture and interior design today.

  5. the sunny yellow does not hold a candle to Fowler's complex use of some heavenly colors, alas the hotel & conference center can not be historically accurate. I prefer Fowler's fantasies to accuracy where other changes have occurred. It seems "history" can not always be recognized by historians-I think Fowler named his paint colors because he knew we would be discussing them so many years later and wanted to be sure we got it right. A wonderful post putting it all together-thank you. PGT

  6. Thanks for your comments PGT. The new hotel is the Syon Park Waldorf Astoria and photos of the exterior are not prominent on their website. In the interpretation of a historic interior, later decoration is sometimes more significant than earlier. Although we would classify Syon House as a museum, it is still a residence, after all. There are those who insist that colors have names, and I think Fowler must have enjoyed the joke. (Another time, I will tell the story of a well-known interior designer who called every color preceded by his own name).

  7. I agree with PGT. It is a shame that Fowler's scheme was painted over. I'm not always a fan of his schemes (the salmon gothick corridor at Wilton comes to mind), but the marble toom at Syon was genius. I shall never forget seeing it i person as a lad in my twenties. Took my breath away. Where is David Mlinaric, when we need him?

  8. Reggie, I am glad the Fowler scheme was recorded; we never know what will happen next. I am a fan of the mature work of David Mlinaric too, but I recently read that he has retired. I seem to remember (but may be mistaken) that he has painted over at least one Fowler scheme as well; perhaps it was the Saloon at Clandon? (Hopefully, one of my devoted readers can set me straight on that). Your comments are greatly appreciated.

  9. Dahhhling enjoyed this post very much. What a great tribute particularly about a subject that can be very tricky...color!

  10. Some of Fowler's schemes for grand country houses may have been controversial, but
    the great hall at Syon House was not one of them. It was widely admired as an object
    lesson in architectural painting. There may have been seven or more tones but the
    overall effect is one of harmony~ none of it in the least heavy handed. If ever there was an example of the maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", this surely is it.

  11. HRH, all factors are often not considered when choosing a paint color, the natural light of the particular space being a main one.

    Toby, thank you for commenting. I first visited Syon 25 years ago, and the genius of Fowler's paint scheme in the Great Hall, the first thing one sees on entering from the dreary exterior, is something I will never forget.

  12. It seems to me that the genius of the Fowler scheme was its subtlety.
    Adam's "coldly Roman" hall was given life and warmth, but not in an obvious
    manner, as the new, "improved" scheme would indicate. It's gone from
    stately to suburban.

  13. "From stately to suburban."


    When that book of essays slamming Fowler came out a few years back, I knew this sort of thing was coming. I just didn't expect it to be this bad.

  14. Toby, I could not agree more, thank you.

    Ancient, I still find it hard to believe that someone would not want to keep or reproduce such a successful scheme. After all, this room doesn't need to be cozy, it's meant to be impressive.

  15. CSS's marvelous book on stately homes is the one I have front and center on a table in the living room, mainly because its cover is the Great Hall at Syon, one of my favorites. In view of the changes, I guess I will remove it to a safer place.

    Having just gone through the experience of choosing color for several rooms in a new house I am most appreciative of the talent of those who do it so well. So many things, to consider, particularly light. We look at the end result and think, that's nice, but getting there...that's another matter.

    Great post, as always.

  16. And who thought watching paint dry could be boring?! But seriously, thank you for this essay. Fascinating as always. I once went to Decorex at Syon, but I think it was mostly in a marquee in the park, and I can't recall going inside the house. I am particularly tickled by the names Fowler gave to paint colours:

    Elephant's Breath
    Vomitesse de la Reine divine! (One wonders what one might get if you mixed those two. Well, not really!)

  17. Michele from BostonFebruary 6, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    Truly shocking! I would think that by now, with John Fowler's work held in such high esteem, that they would even consider changing that divine palette. Tsk. Tsk.

  18. It's sad to think that such an important scheme would be wiped away in the name of "restoration". Great houses, like great gardens, are alive and should be allowed to evolve over time. That is what makes them so rich and so very interesting. The Fowler scheme was an important chapter in the evolution of the Great Hall, which allowed it to become truly sublime. Perhaps one day it will be recognized for its value, and be brought back to life.

  19. L., in decorating rooms in progression, one has to be careful that the results do not end up like a Designer Showhouse, with each adjacent space completely unrelated.

    C., in addition to the separate Conservatory (which has been restored) there was a Butterfly House in a tent-like structure if I am remembering correctly. I have sometimes thought about attending Decorex; I am sure it was interesting.

    M., I suppose such changes are entirely up to the discretion of the Duke and Duchess.

    APB, I agree. The Fowler scheme did indeed represent an important phase in the history of the house. Perhaps we'll see it reinstated some say.

  20. Reinstated someday. (Darn you iPhone).

  21. That kind of quality you never seen in new homes, what a shame.

  22. Its certainly a shame that Fowler's scheme has been painted over; I doubt that would have happened if Syon was owned by the National Trust. Perhaps the Family has been advised by some one who regards Fowler as a 'chi chi' decorator?
    Best Herts

  23. thank you for preserving these beautiful rooms for us in photos...I love the blush and maize together

  24. "Elephants Breath" was my grand-uncles creation, not John's. Harry Robert Anderson came up with that name in the mid 1920's in Oakland, California, while working for Anderson's Carpet House.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Greg. No matter the words, it's the way they work in evoking a spirit in the imagination. We are thankful for all the creative design forces that have laid a foundation for today.


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