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.

Drowned in India

ON OUR THIRD VISIT to the delightful grounds of Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, we took a close look at the chapel that stands close to the main house. Constructed between 1776 and 1779 in Palladian style, it was designed by someone who was far better known for his skill in landscape planning than for his architectural ability, Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (c1715-1783).

The chapel was constructed to replace another older mediaeval one that Brown demolished in order to improve the view of the garden’s lake from the main house. A slender obelisk stands close to the lake, marking the former position of the older chapel. A carved stone notice below it explains:

“This obelisk is an exact model of the Lateran obelisk at Rome. The marble was given by Joseph Thomas Jeffrey Esq of Place in Cornwall”

A man with the same name ordered the building of the Treffry Viaduct in Cornwall in 1839, using granite from his own quarries (https://explorecornwall.org/a-walk-around-luxulyan-valley/). Maybe this is the same person who supplied the granite on which the Compton Verney obelisk stands. Place in Cornwall is near to Fowey, where Jeffrey was based.

 Close to this monument, there are a couple of gravestones lying in the grass. When the old chapel was demolished in 1772, most of its funerary monuments were saved and then transferred to Brown’s new chapel, where they can be seen today.

A fenced off area near the obelisk contains a brick structure from which spring water issues. This is fed to a rectangular stone bath next to the lakeside. This pool is currently being used to grow watercress.

On entering Capability Brown’s chapel, the visitor cannot help immediately noticing the splendid carved monument in the centre of the eastern half of the nave. Carved in 1631 by Nicholas Stone (c1586-1647), sculptor and architect as well as Master Mason to both James I and Charles I, its top bears the carved almost life-sized effigies of Richard (1563-1630) and Margaret Verney (née Margaret Greville, 6th Baroness Willoughby de Broke; c1561-1631) . Various large gravestones form the floor of the raised step where an altar should normally stand. Some of these have been placed so that the heads of the stone slabs face east rather than the usual west. The oldest memorial that we could find in the chapel is dated 1574. It is the gravestone of George Verney (c1543-1574), son of Sir Richard Verney (c1516-1549) and his wife Frances (née Raleigh; c1521-1544).

While I was looking at the stones set in the floor, our friend, who was accompanying us and knows of my interest in India and its history, pointed to a commemorative plaque on the north wall of the chapel. It informs:

“In memory of Henry Verney 2nd Lieutenant VII Hussars. Born June 19th 1870, drowned at Poonah with two of his brother officers June 25th 1893, and of Katharine Verney born July 3rd 1874, died July 28th 1897.”

Henry’s full name was ‘Henry Peyto Verney’. He was the son of Henry Verney, 18th Baron Willoughby de Broke (1844-1902) and Geraldine (née Smith-Barry). Katharine was Henry’s sister.  ‘Poonah’ is an old name for the city of Pune (modern name) in the current State of Maharashtra in India.

The VII Hussars were originally ‘7th Queen’s Own Light Dragoons’. They took on their new name in 1807. This British army unit, which Henry Verney joined, was in existence from 1805 until 1958. The unit served all over the place: in the Peninsular Wars (1808-1809); in England to help quell the Corn Law Riots (1815); at the Battle of Waterloo (1815); in Canada, quelling riots (1838-1842); in India suppressing the Revolt that began in 1857 (1857-1859); South Africa (1881-1882) during the First Anglo-Boer conflict; the Sudan (1884-1885); and again in India (1886-1895)

Henry Verney joined the VII Hussars and went out to India at the age of twenty. According to a history of the VII Hussars (https://www.britishempire.co.uk/forces/armyunits/britishcavalry/7thhussarsverney.htm) :

“Preparations for embarkation to India began in September 1886 when the 7th left Hounslow to go to Shorncliffe. Horses were handed over to the Mounted Infantry and to the 14th Hussars who were returning from India. Extra men were drafted into the regiment from other hussar units so that the strength was now 21 officers, 587 NCOs and privates. They, with 50 women and 47 children proceeded by rail to Portsmouth where they sailed on the ‘Euphrates’ troopship on 26th Nov 1886. They arrived at Bombay on 23rd Dec, taking less than a month, so must have sailed through the Suez Canal. They were stationed at Secunderabad … In Oct 1891 they moved to Mhow…”

They arrived at Mhow (renamed ‘Dr. Ambedkar Nagar’  in Madhya Pradesh State) in the year following that in which Henry Verney joined them:

“He joined the 7th Hussars on 8th Oct 1890 and served with them in India but he was unfortunately drowned in a boating accident at Poona on 25th June 1893. He and two other young officers, Lt Sutton and Lt Crawley were on leave and hired a sailing boat to go on the river, but they lost control of it in the current and were swept over a waterfall. The three of them were seen clinging to the upturned boat in the swirling waters but they succumbed and went under, one of them was last seen swimming towards a bridge but he never made it. Verney’s body was found on 27th and the other two on the next day. They were buried on 28th June with military honours. A firing party was provided by 2nd Yorks LI and a gun carriage by L Battery RHA. The commanding officer Lt-Col J L Hunt attended with 9 officers and 3 warrant officers.”

This plaque in Capability Brown’s chapel is not the only one recalling the drowning of Henry Verney. Another one can be seen in the church at Lighthorne, a village close to Compton Verney. The trapezoid plaque, which I have yet to see, reads:

“TO THE GLORY OF GOD/ AND IN THE MEMORY OF HENRY PEYTO VERNEY/ LIEUT 7TH HUSSARS DROWNED AT POONAH/ IN INDIA 25 JUNE 1893 AGED 23 YEARS” (www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/83855).

Had Henry not been killed so young, he might have become involved in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) or even WW1, by which time he would have been 44 years old. During that war, the VII Hussars lost 224 of their members in Mesopotamia during 1917.  They had been sent to the Middle East from Bangalore (India), where they had been stationed since 1911.

Even if your interest in India is minimal or non-existent, it is well worth making a visit  to Compton Verney to see its art collections, house, chapel, its lake with fine stone bridges, its wonderful trees, and its beautifully landscaped grounds.