Born: Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo; also known as Mrs Henry Wellcome
Sector: Household Goods
Syrie Maugham bore the names of three famous men during her life, so perhaps this is why, when she formally launched her interiors business at the age of 42, she decided to call it simply ‘Syrie’. She is most strongly associated with the craze for all-white interiors that swept through smart houses in the late 1920s and early 1930s and despite the absence of intact interiors, business records and diaries and very little writing on design, her name has lived on. This is not just because of the impact of the ‘Vogue Regency’ style she championed but because of the number of other talented designers she nurtured.
Syrie, a contracted form of her mother’s name, Sarah Louise, was brought up in a religious household. Her father, Thomas Barnardo, converted to the Plymouth Brethren when he was 17 and went on to found the children’s charity that still bears his name today. Duty and obedience was prized. Alcohol and the theatre were banned. As a columnist later wryly remarked: ‘Syrie Maugham is a good example that one’s strongest motives in life are reactions from youth’. Sarah Louise was keen to see her make a suitable marriage and Syrie was engaged by the time she was 16 but broke it off when she realised her fiancé had a mistress. Petite, dark-eyed, with direct, searching brown eyes and an ‘astonishingly school-girled complexion’ even in her 50s, she eventually found a better alternative on a trip to Egypt in 1901 where she met Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur who was 26 years her senior.
This was not a match made in heaven. The couple had one son together, Henry, who had developmental issues and was largely raised by foster parents. When the couple separated in 1910, Syrie gave up any claim to him as part of the separation agreement. She embraced her life as a single (but not yet divorced) woman in London, taking a house in Regent’s Park in 1913 and carrying on affairs with, among others, Gordon Selfridge (who is said to have played a part in her house acquisition though this is disputed). It was the re-decoration of this house by the head of Fortnum & Mason’s head of antiques, Ernest Thornton Smith that triggered her interest in furniture and interiors and she went on to serve an unofficial apprenticeship under him.
At the end of 1913, Syrie met the novelist and playwright William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). While Maugham was mainly interested in men, he had had relationships with women and began an affair with Syrie. On the outbreak of war, Maugham went to serve as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross and there met the man who would become his partner for the next thirty years, Gerald Haxton. However, back in London, Syrie was already pregnant. She ended up travelling to Rome to give birth to their daughter, Liza, in 1915. Wanting to confer some degree of respectability on their child, she finally secured a divorce from Wellcome in August 1916 and after a wedding in May the following year officially became Mrs Somerset Maugham. Syrie loved her husband and set about making a new home for them in Marylebone but by now he was fully enmeshed in his relationship with Haxton and was soon taking long trips abroad.
In 1926, Maugham wrote ‘The Constant Wife’. The plot revolves around Constance, whose surgeon-husband, John, is having an affair with her best friend. Although still happy in her marriage, Constance realises that without an independent income of her own, she is trapped. She takes a job as an interior designer and earns the money to secure her freedom, setting off at the end of the play for a six-week sojourn with her new lover. Looking at what had happened during the previous ten years, it does not take a rocket scientist to see what inspired this particular story.
Largely abandoned by her husband from the early days of her marriage, Syrie started painting and re-upholstering furniture on the top floor of her Marylebone house and selling it to friends. She had very little capital to start a business and claimed later that she did everything herself in those early days, from the book-keeping to the deliveries. In late 1921, with some financial backing now in place, she announced her intent to set up a furnishing business: ‘I am going to bring to England some specimens of French provincial furniture, large simple pieces in lovely pale unvarnished orchard woods or pickled pine. Set in gay, modern rooms they will be perfect.’ She set up a shop that bore her name at 85 Baker Street.
Syrie went into business at the same time and in the same sector as Betty Joel but while Betty made furniture where the innate colour and grain of wood was the star, Syrie acquired pieces to make over, sloshing them with white paint or limewash. Betty generally designed rooms in show homes while Syrie used her own houses to show off her work, ready to sell a visitor a piece of her own furniture on the spot if it was admired. (Somerset Maugham gave acid warnings to dinner guests to keep a tight grip on their chairs..) Syrie mixed business with pleasure: her legendary parties were full of people whose rooms she re-decorated. On one occasion, she even took it upon herself to re-arrange the sitting-room of a host during a country weekend while they were out doing something else – they were not amused on their return. Meanwhile, Betty was drumming up business through advertising, newspaper columns and her stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition. But while their approaches might have been totally different, they were both serious about what they were doing. By 1924, Syrie was able to take much larger premises in a more prestigious location on Grosvenor Square.
Syrie Maugham’s good eye extended to her identifying up-and-coming creative talent. She was an early sponsor of the stage designer Oliver Messel, who met her when he was still a student at the Slade. and the artist Rex Whistler. She championed Noel Coward from his earliest days, later decorating two of his houses, and was great friends with Cecil Beaton. Like Betty Joel, she ventured into design for the screen, working with Ian Campbell-Grey on Anthony Asquith’s 1928 film ‘Shooting Stars’.
In December 1925, Syrie wrote a newspaper column titled ‘Back to Real Womanhood’. It was a cry for women entering business to be taken seriously. ‘Study the “business” woman who has been so much in the papers lately.. Her eyes sparkle, her whole body is alert’, she wrote. ‘She may be tired, harassed, worried to death but she is passionately alive; not merely because she is making money..but simply because she has ceased to be a thing and become a person… Clear your mind, therefore, of any idea that this widespread movement for opening shops in the West End of London is merely the temporary craze of a few bored and hectic women. There is nothing temporary about it.’
This is interesting in itself but what is even more fascinating is that the article opens with the line: ‘She was standing, a slim, black figure of the starkest simplicity, against a whitewashed wall’ and it finishes ‘And to those who are trembling on the brink which separates the old life from the new, I would give a word of advice. Before you act, use a little whitewash. Whitewash your walls and you will discover, when you rise in the morning, that there is something clean and fresh in you which, perhaps, you have been inclined to forget… When you look at them you will see nothing and seeing nothing, you will see yourself…You will be brought face to face with reality.’
Whether Syrie had herself really faced reality at this point is debatable. While her husband took long trips out of the country, her business was taking shape. During 1926, she was on her way to completing a new house to showcase her interior decorating skills, Villa Elisa, in Le Touquet. where she would welcome a wide range of guests over the next eight years and opened a store in Chicago. Meanwhile her marriage limped on. She persuaded her husband to buy a new house at 213 King’s Road, right next door to another famed hostess, Sibyl Colefax, where he could have his own entrance and space so that they could live together apart.
The princess of pale, the queen of white
In a remarkable coming together of life and art, the London opening night of ‘The Constant Wife in April 1927 was followed by a party at 213 King’s Road, where friends and society columnists had their first opportunity to marvel at Syrie’s landmark all-white drawing room, the result of her own inspiration and a successful collaboration with other designers including Oliver Messel, Oliver Hill and Marion Dorn.
As this colour image shows, the room embraced shades of white, which required an expansion of the decor vocabulary to include shades now seen on numerous paint charts: oyster, parchment, ivory, pearl. There is a wide range of materials and textures: a piano is artfully concealed between a chromium-framed mirrored screen and a low white-lacquered screen, the Marion Dorn rug on the floor is in two shades of cream and has two different pile lengths. The furniture includes a mix of modern sofas and Louis XV chairs, painted and re-upholstered in beige. This eclectic style was made to work by the narrow colour palette and it provided a brilliant, reflective stage for some of the best-dressed women and men in town and Syrie’s home and shop gave Cecil Beaton a backdrop for some of his iconic photographs.
Syrie was not the only designer at this time advocating for white interiors: in his 1926 book, ‘Colour and Interior Decoration’, the architect Basil Ionides also made the case for white. But she was its greatest devotée and was anointed ‘The White Queen’ by the influential US interiors magazine House and Garden in 1951. The trend coincided with innovations that made it easier to maintain a light-coloured interior: vacuum cleaners, new detergents and gas. As Richard B. Fisher remarked, the role of Messrs Hoover and Lever and North Thames Gas had as big a part to play in the no-colour revolution as architects and interior designers.
While that night in April 1927 might have resulted in a dramatic success for Somerset Maugham – the part of Constance has been interpreted by actresses from Ethel Barrymore to Ingrid Bergman – and an artistic one for Syrie – their personal relationship was now now bitter and toxic. Two years later, as Syrie opened her New York shop, the couple finally divorced and Somerset Maugham moved with Haxton to the south of France.
The glorious ’30s
‘Energetic, brilliant, cultured Mrs Maugham is an outstanding example of how a talented and clever woman can succeed in business by sheer hard work, courage and a genius for decorating and furnishing’. So gushed the design writer Derek Patmore in July 1931.
During the 1930s, Syrie was certainly busy, criss-crossing the Atlantic to oversee her shops and projects and hopping across the Channel to to buy furniture or welcome guests to the Villa Eliza. Her all-white style was being aped by film stars like Constance Bennett and fashion designers like Edward Molyneux. Doing business on two continents presented a number of business challenges, dealing with staffing, logistics and tax regulations and like Lucy Duff Gordon, Syrie fell foul of U.S. customs.
A 1935 profile estimated that she had furnished around 180 houses in the UK and the US and was employing around seventy people while Pauline Metcalf’s 2010 book identified around 70 named clients. Her style was seen in both city and country residences. Clients includedA 1935 profile estimated that she had furnished around 180 houses in the UK and the US and was employing around seventy people while Pauline Metcalf’s 2010 book identified around 70 named clients. They included Tallulah Bankhead, Edith Rockefeller, Dodie Smith, Amy Johnson and three different projects for Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales.
Syrie was a great hostess and made each of her homes into a social centre. She attracted a lively crowd of writers, socialites, actors and aristocrats, ‘the best mixer of a human cocktail that this town possesses.’ Throughout her life she could be relied upon for innovative ideas, whether it was turning her sitting-room into a winter wonderland, letting people change places mid-way through dinner, serving unusual food – crab kedgeree, rabbit pie – or coming up with original leaving gifts. At the engagement party she threw for Sir Hugh Smiley and Nancy Beaton, guests were given love birds in gilded cages. Where she confidently led, others quickly followed, in this case to the detriment of the mice, tortoises and white rabbits subsequently presented to surprised guests at the end of the evening by Syrie-wannabes across London.
An important collaborator throughout this period was Constance Spry, who provided flowers for Syrie’s parties and worked on numerous interiors, weddings and parties for the Syrie set.
Syrie’s business was important to her but her daughter, Liza, was always the top priority. They were frequently photographed out together, at the opera, theatre and parties, in Le Touquet and St. Moritz. At the age of 20, Liza married Vincent Paravicini in July 1936, in a Schiaparelli-designed white and silver brocade dress, carrying a bouquet by Constance Spry followed by bridesmaids in pale gold lamé. Syrie bought her a house and re-decorated it as her wedding gift.
Syrie built her reputation on white but she was always interested in colour. Early projects included red lacquered furniture and the King’s Road drawing room was the only all-white space in her own house. As she travelled through the 1930s, crimson, green, orange and pink all appeared in her palette. In 1934, she moved from London to the countryside, buying The Pavilion in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. There she created a new set of looks across the living spaces and six bedrooms, using pinks and blues, florals and prints.
The war and the aftermath
When war broke out, Syrie sold her homes in the UK and moved to New York to be with her daughter and grandchildren and nearly all her remaining commissions were for wealthy US-based clients.
She died in 1955. Seven years later, her ex-husband trashed her in his memoir, ‘Looking Back’. When some extracts were published, notably in the Sunday Express, his comments about Syrie, described by some as ‘vituperative’ and ‘slanderous’ and questioning of Liza’s paternity created such a furore that the book was rejected by publishers in both the UK and the USA. ‘He is devoured by retrospective hate of poor Syrie and it has become an obsession’, reflected Noel Coward, who remained close to Liza. An attempt in 1966 by Beverley Nichols to write a repost was also widely slammed. ‘A ghastly book’, wrote Coward, ‘vulgar, tactless and inaccurate’. Syrie’s posthumous brushes with scandal did not stop there: in 1963, one of her Art Deco bathrooms in Mayfair provided the backdrop for the infamous ‘headless man’ photographs featuring Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.
Many designers have continued to take inspiration from Syrie Maugham and nearly seventy years after her death and a century after the unveiling of her marvellous sitting-room, there is renewed interest in her design work. Her Mayfair bathroom was recently re-created and she even inspired one of Karl Lagerfeld’s last couture shows for Chanel in 2017, one creative legend paying tribute to another.
If you enjoyed this story, why not find out about another remarkable woman next month.
For the most complete overview of Syrie Maugham’s life and work, see ‘Syrie Maugham: Staging Glamorous Interiors’ by Pauline C. Metcalf (2010)
Other sources include:
The Weekly Dispatch 18/12/1921; 13/12/1925; The Sphere 4/7/1931; The Tatler 13/7/1932; Londonderry Sentinel 27/5/1933; The Bystander 15/1/1935; The New York Times 1/12/1977
‘The Decorative Thirties’ by Martin Battersby (1971); ‘Syrie Maugham’ by Richard B Fisher (1978); ‘The Noel Coward Diaries’ ed. Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley (1982); ‘Twentieth Century Decoration’ by Stephen Calloway (1988): ‘Baroque Between the Wars’ by Jane Stevenson (2018)