Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo

Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo

Syrie Maugham (née Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo, 10 July 1879 - 25 July 1955) 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, England, a daughter of Thomas John Barnardo, the founder of the Barnardo's charity 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 well-known interior designer credited for designing the first all-white room. She established her own interior decorating business, 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 and other cities in California.

Syrie was born during the Victorian Era, 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 the first interior designer, she did bring more freedom to the design profession. Elsie 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. And she did the first all-white room.

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

Her contemporaries included Elsie de Wolfe and Lady Sybil Colefax. Her clients included Wallis Simpson, the Prince of Wales, the actress Marie Tempest, the Texas politician Oveta Culp Hobby, the Reader's Digest founder DeWitt Wallace, the couturier Capt. Edward Molyneux, American socialites, Mona Williams, Babe Paley, and Bunny Mellon, the playwright Clare Booth Luce, and British socialites such as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and the Hon. Stephen Tennant.

Marriage to Henry Wellcome

In 1901, on a visit to Khartoum with her father, she met Henry Wellcome, 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, 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, who was known as Liza. [Her birth name is given as Mary Elizabeth Wellcome in the immigration and naturalization files of, wherein she is listed, along with her mother, then Syrie Wellcome, on the 21 July 1916 manifest of the HMS Baltic.] When the child was born in Rome, Italy, 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, 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, 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).


* Encyclopedia of Interior Design. Banham,Joanna.,London and Chicago, 1997 pp 793-796
* Syrie Maugham: Famously White Rooms for An English Innovator. Lambert, Elizabeth., Architectural digest, January 2000
* "Syrie's Turn: Once, everyone read W. Somerset Maugham. But now his late ex-wife is the one selling books." Robert Plunket. Sarasota Magazine, 2006, v. 10.

Further reading

* Syrie Maugham. Fisher, Richard B., London: Duckworth, 1978
* The Scandal of Syrie Maugham. Gerald McKnight. ISBN 0-491-02761-3

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