Reputations

Syrie Maugham, pioneering society decorator

Syrie Maugham photographed by Cecil Beaton

In 1962, the Sunday Express serialised the memoirs of author W Somerset Maugham, in which he was less than complimentary about his late ex-wife, the interior designer Syrie Maugham, whom he portrayed as a stupid, shallow and vain woman with fraudulent business practices. Much was made of his attack, but I wonder if Syrie would have been more upset by the publicity then, or the lack of it since. For a woman whose fans have included fashion scions like Karl Lagerfeld and André Leon Talley, her profile remains surprisingly low in Britain, even though 2022 marks the centenary of her opening her first shop on Baker Street and a slew of exhibitions and books celebrating art and design between the wars.

While Syrie’s detractors characterised her as grabbing and scheming, her champions admired her as generous and well-intentioned. She certainly carries more than a whiff of scandal. Petite with direct, searching brown eyes and beautiful skin, her exploits might raise an eyebrow even today. She had a child by Maugham before divorcing her first husband, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome. And while separated from Wellcome, she had affairs with several rich, high-profile men including Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the department store. Syrie persevered with her marriage to Maugham even when it was clear he was in love with a man – who became his long-term companion – and resourcefully set up their King’s Road home with two separate entrances so they could live together “apart”, with discreetly separate living spaces.

Syrie broke with social norms in her professional life, too. For a start, she was serious about work. Having come to the world of business late, setting up her decorating company at 42, Syrie became a pioneer, employing around 70 people at her peak in the 1930s. She extolled the benefits of having a career at a time when most women of her background were expected to stay at home and run the household. “Study the ‘business’ woman who has been so much in the papers lately… Her eyes sparkle, her whole body is alert,” she wrote in the Weekly Dispatch in December 1925. “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.”

Success came at a price. Syrie’s strengths in running a business inevitably invited criticism of her character. First, she was ambitious and innovative. Using her distinctive name as her “brand”, she was more akin to a 21st-century influencer than a twentieth-century society matron, with a gift for commerce that was ahead of her time. She used her own houses to show off her work and would readily sell a piece of furniture on the spot to an admiring visitor. (Maugham sarcastically warned dinner guests to keep a tight grip on their chairs.)

Syrie was also very confident in her abilities, both as a businesswoman and as a trendsetting hostess whose parties attracted a lively crowd of writers, socialites, actors and aristocrats. She would serve unusual food – crab kedgeree, rabbit pie – and come up with original leaving gifts, such as the love birds in gilded cages offered to guests at the engagement party she threw for Sir Hugh Smiley and Nancy Beaton. (Other socialites followed her lead, to the detriment of the mice, tortoises and white rabbits presented to surprised guests by Syrie-wannabes across London.)

But her determination to set prices as high as the market could stand meant Syrie was characterised as money-grubbing. It didn’t help that she was also outspoken, readily critiquing people’s clothing or decorative choices. (At a weekend country-house party she took advantage of her hosts’ absence to rearrange their drawing room; they were not amused.) And if she spent too long away on business trips, she was excoriated as a bad mother – though according to friends she doted on her daughter and grandchildren.

As a decorator, Syrie is best remembered for all-white King’s Road drawing room which she revealed to a glitzy crowd at the after-party for of one of Maugham’s London premieres. US House and Garden eventually anointed her “The White Queen” as a result of this passion for all-white interiors, a craze that swept through many smart houses in the late 1920s and early ’30s. It also made her a target for satire: in his 1938 novel Gammon and Espionage Nicolas Bentley described the bedroom of a spy as “a room filled with more pickled pine and bastard baroque furniture than Syrie Maugham had ever dreamed about.” But Syrie was no one-trick pony and her versatility was key to her longevity. She moved with the times: beige and pale blue in St Tropez in the 1920s; florals and prints in her house on the Waddesdon estate in the 1930s; crimson, orange and shocking pink in later palettes. Though her best-known bathroom makeover was possibly the one at 48 Upper Grosvenor Street which became infamous for the “headless photo” involving Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

Syrie’s high-profile clientele included Tallulah Bankhead, Edith Rockefeller, Dodie Smith, Amy Johnson, Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales

Syrie was also a brilliant collaborator. She had an eye for new talent and was open to working with not-yet-established designers. One protégé was the stage designer Oliver Messel, who met her when a student at the Slade; he made decorative plasterwork for her projects. The architect Oliver Hill was involved with her showpiece living room, where the centrepiece rug was an early work by Marion Dorn. Constance Spry was another working partner, providing flowers for Syrie’s interiors and parties, including the wedding of her daughter, Liza.

Syrie’s success meant that she was able to move her shop from Baker Street to Grosvenor Square in 1924 and later opened premises with gallery space. Glyn Philpot was just one of the artists who showed his work there, including one of his largest paintings, Tropical Garden.

Her most surprising partnership was perhaps the project she undertook in West Sussex with Edward James, the wealthy collector who championed surrealists like René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. In the late 1930s James and Dalí painted the exterior of Monkton House bright lilac and acid green, while Syrie worked with James to commission Dalí’s furniture designs, including the famous Mae West “Lips sofa” and a white version of the Lobster Telephone.

Syrie had shops in Chicago and New York and a transatlantic commissions list. She furnished around 180 houses in the UK and the US with Tallulah Bankhead, Edith Rockefeller, Dodie Smith, Amy Johnson, Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales among her high-profile clientele. She also championed Noel Coward from his earliest days and later decorated two of his houses.

Very little of Syrie’s work remains, but her influence lives on. Instagram and Pinterest are littered with Cecil Beaton’s photographs, where Syrie’s interiors provide the backdrop. At a more prosaic level, every modern paint chart offers countless shades of white, while every daytime-TV schedule shows decorators transforming drab furniture and interiors.

I like to imagine her at a party today, playing the game “Two Truths and a Lie” . She might say: “I provided the backdrop to graphic sex photos; I turned Salvador Dalí’s lobster phone white; I stole the show from my husband on opening night.” And then she’d laugh uproariously and say: “Rules are for breaking: these are all true!”

Lizzie Broadbent is the founder of seen.heard consulting, working with organisations to implement change, and of “Women Who Meant Business”, celebrating women who forged business careers in Britain before 1945

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