Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo
Syrie Maugham was a leading British interior decorator of the 1920s and 1930s and best-known for popularizing rooms decorated entirely in shades of white.


She was born in Hackney
London Borough of Hackney
The London Borough of Hackney is a London borough of North/North East London, and forms part of inner London. The local authority is Hackney London Borough Council....

, England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, a daughter of Thomas John Barnardo
Thomas John Barnardo
Thomas John Barnardo was a philanthropist and founder and director of homes for poor children, born in Dublin. From the foundation of the first Barnardo's home in 1870 to the date of Barnardo’s death, nearly 100,000 children had been rescued, trained and given a better life.- Early life :Barnardo...

, the founder of the Barnardo's
Barnardo's is a British charity founded by Thomas John Barnardo in 1866, to care for vulnerable children and young people. As of 2010, it spends over £190 million each year on more than 400 local services aimed at helping these same groups...

Charitable organization
A charitable organization is a type of non-profit organization . It differs from other types of NPOs in that it centers on philanthropic goals A charitable organization is a type of non-profit organization (NPO). It differs from other types of NPOs in that it centers on philanthropic goals A...

 for destitute children, and his wife, the former Sarah Louise "Syrie" Elmslie.


In a career that lasted from 1922 until her death, Syrie Maugham became a legendary interior designer credited for designing the first all-white room. In the early 1910s, Maugham began her career by apprenticing in a London decorating firm to learn about furniture restoration, trompe-l'oeil, curtain design, and the mechanics of traditional upholstery. She established her own interior decorating business at the age of 42, Syrie LTD., at 85 Baker Street, London in 1922, and as her reputation grew, so did her business. She later opened shops in New York and Chicago, and designed homes in Palm Springs
Palm Springs
Palm Springs is a desert city in CaliforniaPalm Springs may also refer to:* Palm Springs, Florida* Palm Springs, Hong Kong, a residential development in Yuen Long, Hong Kong* Coachella Valley, also known as the Palm Springs area...

 and cities all over America.

Syrie was born during the Victorian Era
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

, a time characterized by dark colors and small spaces. Syrie rejected these norms to create rooms filled with light and furnished in multiple shades of white and mirrored screens. In addition to mirrored screens, her trademark pieces included: books covered in white vellum, cutlery with white porcelain handles, console tables with plaster palm-frond, shell, or dolphin bases, upholstered and fringed sleigh beds, fur carpets, dining chairs covered in white leather, and lamps of graduated glass balls. Maugham also started the trend of stripping and repainting French provincial antiques with a secret craquelure technique. This technique remains a popular treatment seen in many modern interior designs.

Although it cannot be said that Syrie was in the first generation of interior designers, she did bring more freedom and creativity to the design profession. Elsie de Wolfe was quite formal, correct, and respectful, but Syrie drew from a various mixture of sources ranging from Picasso to baroque antiques. She reinvented classic furniture with crackled paint applications. She used strange colors. Maugham decorated the first all-white room, the living room in her London house, which she unveiled at a candlelit midnight party with great success.

She is most well known for the music room at her house at 213 King's Road in London and the salon at her villa at Le Touquet, a society resort in France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

. The music room was actually the only room designed in all white, but many other rooms were primarily white with accents of color in the draperies or pillows. The salon was decorated entirely in shades of beige, relieved only by pale pink satin curtains. Although she made her fortune and fame with her white decors, by the mid 1930s she had largely given up the white decors to create interiors with baroque accessories and color schemes punctuated by bright green, shocking pink, and bold reds. Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton
Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton, CBE was an English fashion and portrait photographer, diarist, painter, interior designer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre...

 remembered leaf-emerald wallpaper, magenta cushions, and Schiaparelli pink.

Maugham was known to work from her bed in the morning, dictating to her secretary who worked from a desk in her bedroom, and gave orders to her shop manager on the way home at night. Her style was very authoritative and demanding, and staff rarely stayed long.

Maugham's daughter Liza married in 1936, and the London house Maugham decorated for her was among her best work. After finishing it, she sold her own house and traveled to India with Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe
]Elsie de Wolfe was an American actress, interior decorator, nominal author of the influential 1913 book The House in Good Taste, and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society...

 "to paint the Black Hole of Calcutta white". Maugham continued decorating, but had already completed her most famous and successful work.

Her contemporaries included Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe
]Elsie de Wolfe was an American actress, interior decorator, nominal author of the influential 1913 book The House in Good Taste, and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society...

 and Lady Sybil Colefax
Sybil Colefax
Sibyl Colefax, Lady Colefax was a notable English interior decorator and socialite in the first half of the twentieth century....

. Her clients included Wallis Simpson, the Prince of Wales
Prince of Wales
Prince of Wales is a title traditionally granted to the heir apparent to the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the 15 other independent Commonwealth realms...

, the actress Marie Tempest
Marie Tempest
Dame Marie Tempest DBE was an English singer and actress known as the "queen of her profession".Tempest became the most famous soprano in late Victorian light opera and Edwardian musical comedies. Later, she became a leading comic actress and toured widely in North America and elsewhere...

, the Texas politician Oveta Culp Hobby
Oveta Culp Hobby
Oveta Culp Hobby was the first secretary of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, first commanding officer of the Women's Army Corps, and chairman of the board of the Houston Post....

, the Reader's Digest
Reader's Digest
Reader's Digest is a general interest family magazine, published ten times annually. Formerly based in Chappaqua, New York, its headquarters is now in New York City. It was founded in 1922, by DeWitt Wallace and Lila Bell Wallace...

 founder DeWitt Wallace
DeWitt Wallace
DeWitt Wallace , also known as William Roy was a United States magazine publisher. He co-founded Reader's Digest with his wife Lila Wallace and published the first issue in 1922.Born in St...

, the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli
Elsa Schiaparelli
Elsa Schiaparelli was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli's designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators...

 and Capt. Edward Molyneux
Edward Molyneux
Edward Henry Molyneux was a British fashion designer whose fashion house in Paris was in operation from 1919 until 1950.- Overview :Born in London to Justin Molyneux and Lizzy Kenny, Edward Molyneux attended Beaumont College, a Roman Catholic preparatory school...

, art patron Edward James
Edward James
Edward William Frank James was a British poet known for his patronage of the surrealist art movement.-Early life and marriage:...

, American socialites such as Mona Williams
Mona von Bismarck
Mona Travis Strader , known as Mona Bismarck, was an American socialite and fashion icon. She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.-Early life:...

, Babe Paley
Babe Paley
Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer Paley was an American socialite and style icon. She was known by the popular nickname "Babe" for most of her life. She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958....

, and Bunny Mellon, the playwright Clare Booth Luce, theatre legends Alfred Lunt
Alfred Lunt
Alfred Lunt was an American stage director and actor, often identified for a long-time professional partnership with his wife, actress Lynn Fontanne...

 and Lynn Fontanne
Lynn Fontanne
Lynn Fontanne was a British actress and major stage star in the United States for over 40 years. She teamed with her husband Alfred Lunt.She lived in the United States for more than 60 years but never relinquished her British citizenship. Lunt and Fontanne shared a special Tony Award in 1970...

, and British socialites such as Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll
Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll
Margaret, sometime Duchess of Argyll , was a notorious British Socialite, best remembered for her 1963 divorce case against her second husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll, which featured salacious photographs and scandalous stories.-Birth and youth:Margaret was the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and...

 and the Hon. Stephen Tennant
Stephen Tennant
Stephen James Napier Tennant was a British aristocrat known for his decadent lifestyle. It is said, albeit apocryphally, that he spent most of his life in bed.-Early life:...

. She redecorated The Glen
The Glen, Scottish Borders
The Glen, also known as Glen House, is an estate and country house in southern Scotland. It is located in the glen of the Quair Water, around south-west of Innerleithen, and south-east of Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. The estate is recorded from the 13th century, but the present Glen House...

, Scottish home of Christopher Tennant, 2nd Baron Glenconner
Baron Glenconner
Baron Glenconner, of The Glen in the County of Peebles, is a title in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. It was created in 1911 for Sir Edward Tennant, 2nd Baronet, who had earlier represented Salisbury in the House of Commons as a Liberal and also served as Lord Lieutenant of Peeblesshire. Lord...

, who hated the existing Scottish Baronial style of the house.

Marriage to Henry Wellcome

In 1901, on a visit to Khartoum
Khartoum is the capital and largest city of Sudan and of Khartoum State. It is located at the confluence of the White Nile flowing north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile flowing west from Ethiopia. The location where the two Niles meet is known as "al-Mogran"...

 with her father, she met Henry Wellcome
Henry Wellcome
Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome FRS was an American-British pharmaceutical entrepreneur. He founded the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Company with his colleague Silas Burroughs, which is one of the four large companies that merged to form GlaxoSmithKline...

, an American-born British industrialist who had made his fortune in pharmaceuticals (his firm became Burroughs Wellcome). She was 22 and he was 48, and they married soon after. In 1903 they had a son, Henry Mounteney Wellcome, who apparently had a learning disability that kept him apart from his family for most of his childhood and youth.

The Wellcomes' marriage was not happy, and Syrie reportedly had numerous affairs, including with the department store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge
Harry Gordon Selfridge
Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. was an American-born retail magnate, who founded the British department store Selfridges.-Early years:...

, Brig. Gen. Percy Desmond Fitzgerald, and the novelist William Somerset Maugham. Eventually, after some years of separation, she became pregnant with Maugham's only child, Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth Maugham
Mary Elizabeth Maugham Paravicini Hope, Baroness Glendevon was the only child of English playwright, novelist, and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham and his then mistress, Syrie Wellcome...

, who was known as Liza. When the child was born in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

, Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

, she was given Wellcome's surname. Wellcome then publicly sued for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent.

Marriage to W. Somerset Maugham

Syrie Wellcome and W. Somerset Maugham married in 1917 in New Jersey
New Jersey
New Jersey is a state in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic regions of the United States. , its population was 8,791,894. It is bordered on the north and east by the state of New York, on the southeast and south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by Pennsylvania and on the southwest by Delaware...

, although he was predominantly homosexual and would spend much of his marriage apart from his wife. They divorced in 1928. Her divorce settlement from Maugham was their house at 213 King's Road
Kings Road
King's Road or Kings Road, known popularly as The King's Road or The KR, is a major, well-known street stretching through Chelsea and Fulham, both in west London, England...

, fully furnished, a Rolls-Royce, and 2,400 pounds a year for her and 600 pounds a year for Liza.

In his 1962 memoir Looking Back Maugham virulently criticised his former wife, which caused a public outcry. After Maugham's death in 1965 Beverley Nichols, a former lover of Maugham's and a close friend of Syrie's, wrote in rebuttal a defence of her called A Case of Human Bondage (1966).

Further reading

  • Metcalf, Pauline C. Syrie Maugham. Creating Glamorous Interiors. Preface by Camilla Chandon. New York: Acanthus Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0926494077 With a picture of Syrie Maugham by Cecil Beaton on the cover.
  • Syrie Maugham. Fisher, Richard B., London: Duckworth, 1978. On page 6 the photograph of Syrie Maugham captioned "Syrie Maugham at a luncheon, 22 November 1936" is in fact the photograph of her friend, the opera singer Olga Lynn. This photograph is often thought to be of Syrie Maugham.
  • The Scandal of Syrie Maugham. Gerald McKnight. ISBN 0-491-02761-3
  • The Great Lady Decorators. Adam Lewis. Rizzoli 2010. The photograph from Richard B. Fisher's book is reproduced on page 165.
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