Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo was born in London in July 1879, the third child and eldest daughter in a family of six children. Her father, the philanthropist Thomas John Barnardo, was the founder of the Dr Barnardo’s Homes for destitute children in the UK; her mother was the daughter of a Lloyd’s of London underwriter.
According to author Selina Hastings, Maugham’s Irish born father had converted to Protestant evangelicalism when he was 16, whereupon he became a strict advocate of daily Bible reading, obedience, punctuality and the forgoing of worldly pleasures.
In her early twenties, she apprenticed herself to a London decorating firm, a decision described by The New York Times as ‘an almost insolent gesture for a well-born British woman’ at the time. It was, however, the starting point for a remarkable transition that would launch her into a sophisticated world.
While serving as an apprentice at Thornton Smith, Maugham learned about furniture restoration, trompe-l’oeil, curtain design and upholstery. In 1922, when she was 42, Maugham opened her first shop, Syrie Ltd.
As her business grew, she began taking commissions from clients on the West Coast of America. By the end of the decade she had opened additional shops in Chicago and New York. Her list of famous clients included Noel Coward, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the poet Stephen Tennant.
She has been described as being possessed ‘of a lavish Molyneux wardrobe, a quick temper, an appetite for a good scuffle and a choppy verbal style rapped out in high, birdlike notes’, and as ‘something of a protofeminist.’ Writing in Vogue, fashion journalist André Leon Talley said that she ‘turned interior decoration on its cabriole legs at the beginning of the last century’.
This is due to the fact that so many of her design projects have long since been broken up and scattered. While Maugham was extremely influential as a trendsetter and a tastemaker, she never published a book and consequently there are very few photographs of her many installations.
Maugham, who was brilliant at marketing her taste and style, was initially famous for her groundbreaking ‘all white’ rooms of the 1920s and ’30s. The most famous was the all-white music room at her home on London’s King’s Road, which she unveiled at a midnight party in 1927. It was a space that variously hosted the Prince of Wales, Cecil Beaton and the editor of Vogue.
‘Syrie offered the fresh new look of the 1930s. Her taste was modern, but not in a severe way. She swept away the cobwebs of the Victorian age’ — designer Joseph Minton
According to an article in Architectural Digest, ‘furniture was Maugham’s specialty: French provincial antiques and her own designs alike received the Maugham treatment. They were pickled or stripped, painted, or finished with a secret craquelure technique.’
After Maugham closed her New York shop in 1932, the suggestion was put to interior designer Rose Cumming that she might start designing white furniture of her own. ‘No,’ Cumming is reported to have replied, ‘white was always Syrie’s.’
Many other major decorators considered Maugham a go-to source for furniture and objects for their high-end clients. Maugham had many pieces of furniture custom-made, and their distinctive forms became part of her instantly recognisable style.
Maugham helped launch the careers of Jean-Michel Frank, Emilio Terry and Serge Roche, while her style directly influenced decorators including Elsie de Wolfe and Frances Elkins. The John Dickinson white plaster table (below), chosen by Dallas socialite and collector Betty Blake for her Newport home, would doubtless have been applauded by Maugham.
As the Fort Worth interior designer Joseph Minton said, ‘Syrie offered the fresh new look of the 1930s. Her taste was modern, but not in a severe way. Like Elsie de Wolfe, she sort of swept away the cobwebs of the Victorian age. It was clean and fresh — and very much the look of Betty Blake’s apartment.’
While she was an advocate of glamorous interiors, Maugham also styled for maximum ease and relaxation — deep comfortable sofas and chairs with button tufting and luxurious fabrics.
Maugham quite often endorsed excellent over-scaled reproductions by some the best modern firms such as Maison Jansen.
When Maugham used 18th-century period pieces she was not afraid to change finishes or use an absolutely modern fabric (see below).
Maugham married her first husband, Henry Wellcome, who had made his fortune with the pharmaceuticals firm Burroughs Wellcome, in June 1901. They had one son, Henry, before separating in 1910. In 1913, the designer met the playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham at a dinner party. They married in New Jersey in 1917, but divorced in 1928.
According to Architectural Digest, ‘the London house Maugham decorated for [Liza, her daughter by Maugham] was among her best work. After finishing it, she sold her own house and travelled to India with [Elsie] de Wolfe, “to paint the Black Hole of Calcutta white”, said a friend.’
In the United States, Maugham’s clients included Babe Paley, whose house she worked on in New York, and Jean Harlow, who commissioned her for her home in Hollywood.
Betty Blake worked with Syrie Maugham on at least three houses, having first encountered her furniture after moving to New York in 1940. She has remained a fan ever since, reusing her favourite Syrie Maugham pieces in her many homes across the United States and around the world.
The Christie's Lates event on Monday 11 December at our Rockefeller Center galleries will see author Pauline C. Metcalf in conversation with specialist Richard Nelson about Syrie Maugham and the Betty Blake Collection