Finding Syrie

8 June 2012

 Sir Henry Wellcome and Gwendoline Syrie Wellcome. Wellcome Images
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Sir Henry Wellcome and Gwendoline Syrie Wellcome. Wellcome Images

Who was Syrie Wellcome? Supriya Menon goes in search of the woman who shared Sir Henry’s life for ten years.

When you walk into the cool, dark interior of the Medicine Man gallery here at the Wellcome Collection, the first person to greet you is Henry Wellcome, or rather, a portrait of him in a splendid costume. You have already spoken of him before your day here has begun; if nothing else, you have uttered his name – Wellcome. His life story is presented before you; you are surrounded by his great love – his collection, and you are a few feet away from his great legacy – the Wellcome Trust.

The Cabinet of Wonders, the Wunderkrammer, is a glowing wooden cabinet in Medicine Man that displays a variety of glassware, along with a timeline of Henry Wellcome’s rise to success. However, there is one small photograph that is a testament to the one thing that he could not quite excel at – his marriage. Look closely and you will spot a photograph that at first glance seems to be just a good old-fashioned portrait of a couple, but on closer inspection, would seem to show a rather unusual pose for two people in love to  adopt, almost confrontational. It is Henry and his wife Syrie; and as our very own Ross MacFarlane from the library says, if there ever was a photograph that told the story of their marriage, this one is it.

Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo (1879–1955) was the third child born to Thomas Barnardo, the philanthropist who founded Dr Barnardo’s Homes for vulnerable children. Growing up in a rich but devoutly religious family, Syrie led a sheltered and comfortable life.  We do not know when Henry Wellcome and Syrie first met; however, it is known that Syrie’s father and Henry had been acquaintances for a few years.

Henry must have caught her interest, for at the age of 21, she joined a cruise on the Nile and followed Henry to North Africa. After a whirlwind romance, the two married on June 25, 1901 in Surbiton. She was 21, he was 47. The news of their engagement and subsequent marriage, all within a span of a few weeks, took their acquaintances by surprise. They were thrilled that Henry, who seemed destined to lead life as a bachelor, had finally settled down with a beautiful, intelligent and delightful young woman. In 1903, a son, Henry Mounteney Wellcome, was born to them.

Soon after their marriage, the happy couple socialised extensively and travelled abroad for months, during which Henry managed to find time to collect even more artefacts to ship back to England. Henry had decided to hold an exhibition on medical history around this time, and his collecting activity gained an urgency. What a new bride thought of this then is not clear; however, after the marriage ended, Syrie often complained that she had ‘sacrificed’ herself to this habit of Henry’s, one that she had ‘detested’. She certainly would have been surrounded by his collection at all times, whether travelling or at home – Henry’s offices were often flooded with artefacts from all over the world, packed and stored away, never to see daylight in decades; her home was cluttered with African ivory miniatures and poisoned arrows. Is it any surprise that when she later went on to forge a career as an interior designer, the style that she chose to make her own was one of light and space? Syrie is now considered to be a pioneer among interior designers, the one who introduced the concept of an ‘all white room’.

Henry and Syrie separated in April 1910 while on a trip to Panama, where he accused her of having an affair with an American financier (an accusation Syrie would vehemently deny for the rest of her life). Syrie left Panama alone and by the time Henry returned to England, the couple had separated. After their separation, Henry never spoke to Syrie again, so absolute was his belief in her infidelity. She was not permitted to contact him, and he seems to have destroyed all evidence of their nine years together. Pictures scholars have drawn of their marriage are all dependent on the divorce papers, and information from letters a hurt Henry and a bitter Syrie wrote to their friends.

Intriguing and sad in equal measure is the effect that something as simple as ‘collecting’ had on the life of Henry Wellcome. He had the means to afford and sustain what turned out to be a very expensive hobby, and he gave it everything. His wife certainly saw it as competition for her husband’s affection for both her and her child.

After separating from Henry, Syrie seems to have been able to live life on her own terms. In 1913, Syrie began a relationship with writer Somerset Maugham, and in 1915, a daughter, Liza, was born to them. Henry, who had been apprehensive of the social implications of a divorce, was still legally married to Syrie at this point. However, Liza’s birth seems to have been the final straw and Henry filed for divorce soon after, naming Maugham as a co-respondent. In 1917, Syrie and Maugham married in New Jersey, USA.

In 1922, Syrie launched her career as a serious interior designer by opening her store in London’s Baker Street. Syrie introduced styles and ideas that were revolutionary for the period, and she became a very popular designer who was sought out by the rich and famous on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Duchess of Windsor and designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Her marriage to Maugham did not last, however, and the two divorced in 1929. She raised her daughter by herself, and continued to work until her death in 1955. Maugham would later go on to publish works that were highly critical of Syrie, and in his 1962 memoir Looking Back, claimed Liza was not in fact his child. This led to a highly publicised court battle from which Liza emerged victorious.

I find Syrie’s life fascinating; she lived in an age that saw great social and political transformation in England and the world. She faced adversity in her personal life with strength and courage, and succeeded in becoming an accomplished businesswoman and a visionary designer who continues to inspire others to this day.

Supriya Menon is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.