Syrie and Mounteney Wellcome
25 November 2008. By Penny Bailey.
Ever admiring of others’ good work, Wellcome became a friend of Dr Thomas Barnardo, the famous founder of homes for orphan children in London’s East End.
During his first visit to Sudan in 1901, he met Barnardo’s daughter, Gwendoline Maud Syrie, who was on tour there in Khartoum, and was captivated by her beauty, liveliness and intelligence. Despite an age difference of 26 years (he was 48, she 22), they married later that year and settled in a house in Kent. Syrie gave birth to a son, Henry Mounteney Wellcome, their only child, in 1903.
After a while, however, it became clear that their tastes and interests differed profoundly. Possibly, having met his future wife in the Sudan, Wellcome thought Syrie would share his passion for travel. But she preferred to spend her time in the drawing rooms of high society.
The discomforts of travelling long distances during Wellcome's collecting tours placed a great deal of strain on their marriage. Syrie grew tired of a husband who seemed to spend more time on his collections than on her, and wrote: "Ever since our marriage, the greater part of our time has been spent, as he well knows, in places I detested…sacrificing myself in a way I hated, both to please him and gather curios".
Separation and divorce
On one of their long trips abroad, to Panama in 1910, Wellcome angrily accused Syrie of being unfaithful to him. She left him and went to New York with a friend and Henry concluded his Panama mission alone.
At Wellcome’s insistence, they never spoke to each other or met again. Wellcome expected to have things his way in his marriage as well as his business, and was unforgiving to anyone who crossed or angered him - including his now estranged wife.
Shortly after her separation from Wellcome, Syrie began an affair with William Somerset Maugham before he became exclusively homosexual. While still married to Henry (who was by then mostly presiding over archaeological excavations in Sudan), she had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth, by Maugham.
Wellcome immediately began divorce proceedings, naming Maugham as a co-respondent. It was a sensationally bloody divorce trial and Fleet Street had a field day with the scandal. Wellcome, who had been obsessive about protecting his private life, stood publicly humiliated.
The divorce was granted in 1916, along with custody of Mounteney, and Syrie married Maugham. Ten years later, she divorced him as well, and after her death he wrote a virulent attack on her in his 1962 memoirs, ‘Looking Back’, which cost him many friends. Wellcome left Syrie nothing in his will, but he did leave £500 to Dr Barnardo's homes for children.
After Syrie separated from Wellcome, she established herself as the first English woman to pursue a career in interior design. She designed the first all-white room - a vivid contrast to the dark colours and small spaces of the Victorian era into which she had been born. Her style was extremely fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s - her many clients included Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales. She opened shops in New York and Chicago, and designed homes in Palm Springs and other cities in California, before her death in 1955.
Marriage was arguably Henry Wellcome’s first failure in a life marked until then only by advancement and success, and the tragedy of its ending turned him into a forbidding figure that no one could get to know well.
By his 50s he was no longer "gregarious and outgoing", but armoured against personal relationships, and ever more committed to his business and his collecting.
"...I shall drown my sorrow in work. Work is a great comforter, and my life work is one that contributes to the welfare of others, as well as myself, and this thought helps to brighten one's life."
Henry Mounteney Wellcome was named after his two godfathers, Henry Stanley and Mounteney Jephson. Both were explorers, and no doubt Henry Wellcome hoped their pioneering spirit would rub off on his son.
Syrie and Wellcome strongly disagreed on how best their son should be brought up. Syrie suggested a governess, rest and constant affection, whereas Henry Wellcome advocated fresh air and plenty of exercise, and hired an ex-Cambridge Blue to be his son's tutor.
When his parents separated in 1910, Mounteney spent much of his time travelling between his parents and attending a succession of private boarding schools. On their divorce in 1916, Wellcome was granted custody and placed severe restrictions on Syrie's access to her son.
Mounteney struggled at school - modern research has suggested that he was dyslexic - and could not become the son Wellcome wished for. Henry never revealed his disappointment to his son, however, and maintained close contact with him throughout his life. They met regularly, and travelled abroad together.
Unsuited to take over the family business, Mounteney settled for a life as a farmer in the Buckinghamshire countryside instead. He lived a long and contented life, happily married to Jean, a woman who shared his interests.
“As I got older, I realized that this was what I wanted to do, live in the country and live on a farm. When I told my father he said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, then go ahead,’ and he supported me all the way.” Mounteney Wellcome.