Tuesday, 18 April 2017

O = Obsession, opportunity, opposites and a dash of Oscar

In 1901, Henry Soloman Wellcome married Gwendoline Syrie Barnardo, daughter of the devout philanthropist couple Thomas and Elaine Barnardo, famed for their charities supporting vulnerable children (and still in existence today).

The entanglement began in Khartoum when Henry was occupied with organising the establishment of the Tropical Research Foundation. Miss Barnardo had taken a cruise on the Nile (as one did back then, because of course Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was part of the British Empire). 

Quite sensibly, the young lady preferred to be called by her middle name, Syrie, which had been her independently wealthy mother's nickname. Her own nickname was Queenie: Syrie harboured a passion for fashion and luxury— a tad problematic in her rigid religious family.

I say, 'quite sensibly...preferred Syrie' because as any lover of Oscar Wilde will be aware, The Importance of Being Earnest began amusing audiences in 1895. The name Gwendoline would surely have put people in mind of the feckless Miss Fairfax, and expected her to say things like: 'I never change except in my affections', and 'I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment's solitude.'  

Queenie, it seems, was a bold 'New Woman' of the turn of the century for it was she who pursued Henry, a known acquaintance of her father. Yes, rumour has it she took that cruise because she knew it was destined to be her Love Boat. Syrie intended to marry a wealthy man and escape to luxury. 

Syrie was twenty-one. 
Henry, a name which surely inspires every bit as much confidence as Ernest, was 26 years her senior.
And had a pretty damned impressive ~tache.

Two years later, despite the constant travel in search of ever more objects for Henry the obsessive collector of objects to own, their son Henry Mounteney Wellcome — Monty —was born.
Who had a pretty damned sweet set of cheeks.

Words such as cold, humourless and uncompromising are used to describe Henry. Not one to share his feelings or thoughts, he lived by his maxim: Never tell anyone what you propose to do until you have done it.

Syrie, on the other hand, is described as artistic, vivacious and social.
This photographer captured the relationship
Reports of the marriage as happy were extremely over-rated.
Henry insisted that his wife accompany him on his almost constant travels. Syrie suffered from extreme motion sickness.
Syrie shone at glamorous parties. Henry favoured formal business dinners where he was the focus.
Henry began to travel alone, taking the metaphorical cheque book and credit card with him.

Syrie said: '...the great part of our time has been spent in places I detested...sacrificing myself in a way I hated, both to please him and to gather curios.'

Objects. Obsession.

And so, after nine not-so-happy years, Syrie left.
Henry never spoke to her again.

Overbearing. Overshadowed. Overwhelm.

There are a couple of interesting post scripts to this sad-tale-dominated-by-concepts-beginning-with-the-letter-O.

Firstly, Syrie went on to spend the rest of her life with sensitive arty types. She married again and became Mrs Somerset Maugham. She also built an exceptional business of her own as an influential interior designer. Her statement look: the sparse all-white room. Of course it was. 
Secondly, and purely speculatively, the mystery of the band of green gems in the elderly Sir Henry's pocket at his death is solved to my satisfaction.

Emeralds were Syrie's favourite.

During the month of April, I am participating in the Blogging from A–Z Challenge.

My posts will all feature images of and by the Wellcome Collection, Euston, London: the free destination for the incurably curious.


  1. I think a trip down the Nile would have been exciting back at the turn of the 20th Century.


    1. Excitingbat any time, in my view. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you're enjoying AtoZ.

    2. Interesting typo! See what happens on my phone in the dark. Sorry.

  2. Syrie's amazing up-do reminds me of the continent of Africa. Was that intentional, I wonder.

    I'm not sure which would bother me more as a wife, the obsessions or that yucky huge mustache, probably full of crumbs. LOL.

    1. Lol she does seem to favour big hair and even bigger hats.
      I'm not a fan of the big hairy upper lip, either.

  3. I thought the ring must have belonged to or perhaps been something to do with a lost love. Shame it didn't work out for them :-)

    1. You soft romantic thing...
      apparently he was a bit of a tyrant... even in the bedroom.

  4. Replies
    1. So kind of you to say so, Nancy. That means a great deal to me. Thank you.

  5. That sounds like such a sad life to live. It makes me feel bad for both of them. Interesting story, though. Thank you for sharing.


    1. Interestingly, it seems it was he who never recovered. There are even sadder details to their life together, but I felt a bit like a traitor revealing all.

  6. It does sound a bit miserable. There are sadder details I omitted. Syria had a pretty miserable decade until she left Henry.

  7. Good lord -that is the most appalling photo of a married couple that I think I've ever seen!
    (But I am still very much enjoying your stories!)

    1. Thanks for staying with me. I truly appreciate it.
      And if I told you I think that is one of their wedding photos!?! Passion aplenty.

  8. An interesting post about an interesting woman. I'm glad she left the tyrant!

    1. Me too. She clearly had a great deal of talent herself. And she was, of course, outcast by society for leaving her husband. So she had guts.

  9. So interesting and I LOVE the ending! Well done.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Enjoyed the social history. Glad Syrie had the gumption to find a better life

    1. By all accounts, he left lots of scars, but she went on to personal glory and independence without his immense wealth.