Glass, iron, and Syon

KEW GARDENS CONTAINS several magnificent Victorian plant houses made mainly of glass and iron. These include: The Palm House built 1844-1848; The Waterlily House built 1852; and The Temperate House built in about 1859. Although they are early examples of massive glass and iron structures for the cultivation of plants, they are not the earliest. The conservatory in the gardens of nearby Syon House predates them, having been built in 1827, ten years before Queen Victoria came to the throne. As a work of architecture, it rivals the best of those Victorian ‘glasshouses’ that can be seen at Kew.

The Grand Conservatory at Syon

We had parked in the grounds of Syon House several times before we visited its gardens in April 2021 and each time, I noticed the large glass and iron dome towering over the high garden walls. Until we entered the gardens, I had not realised that this splendid dome is attached to one of the most attractive plant conservatories that I have ever seen.

The extensive gardens of Syon House were landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) in 1760 but were replanned in the 19th century.  The architect Charles Fowler (1792-1862), who designed the market buildings in London’s Covent Garden, designed The Great Conservatory at Syon Park. It was built for Hugh Percy the Third Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847), who served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under the Duke of Wellington from 1829 to 1830 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Percy,_3rd_Duke_of_Northumberland).

Writing in 1876, James Thorne, author of “Handbook to The Environs of London”, noted:

“The Great Conservatory designed by Fowler is in the form of a wide crescent, with pavilions at the extremities, and a lofty central dome. The centre, 100 feet long, is a tropical house, and is said to contain the finest collection of tropical plants in any private establishment in England. It is noteworthy that here only in this country has the cocoanut palm fully ripened …”

Thorne also noted that the vases on pedestals on the terrace in front of the conservatory were carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). The circular pool in front of the conservatory has a statue of Hermes (Mercury), which is a copy of one by the Italian sculptor Giambologna (1529-1608).

Although we were unable to enter The Great Conservatory, we could see most of it through its clean windows. The central dome is supported by a ring of perforated semi-circular arches held aloft by slender iron pillars. Even without entering it, the central area of the building can be seen to be a beautifully designed, airy space. Though not as crowded with plants as the conservatories at Kew Gardens, the one at Syon contains a collection of palms, cactuses, and other warm weather plants, mostly large and well-established. Unlike the glasshouses at Kew, much of the rear wall of The Great Conservatory is constructed with brickwork instead of glass and iron.

Much time can be spent enjoyably exploring the lovely gardens at Syon House, but despite their beauty, the pièce-de-rèsistance is without doubt The Great Conservatory, an impressive and beautiful example of construction in glass and iron. It is well worth purchasing an admission ticket even if only to see and admire this great work of Regency architecture.

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