Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Horace Walpoles's Strawberry Hill House

by Tom Williams

In 1747, Horace Walpole, the son of Britain's first Prime Minister, bought a small house near the Thames in Twickenham. He was attracted to the location because of the many grand houses along the river nearby. Neighbours included Henrietta Howard, who had been the mistress of King George II. Alexander Pope, who had died in 1744 had lived less than half a mile away and built his famous grotto in Twickenham.

Walpole was an enthusiast for the revival of interest in Gothicism. His book, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, is regarded as Britain's first Gothic novel. He decided to take the undistinguished house and convert it into a Gothic palace. The result was Strawberry Hill House. It grew over the years from a small, relatively normal, summer home into a miniature version of the stately homes of England, complete with a ballroom where parties were so grand that the owner had a railway station built for the benefit of guests coming up from London. In 1923, the building was bought by the Catholic Church, who used it as a teacher training college. Walpole’s original building was used for teaching and as a residence for the monks and, indeed, the grounds and many of the later additions to Walpole’s house are still part of what is now St Mary's University.

In 2007, the original parts of the House were leased to a Trust to restore it and open it to the public. Although restoration of Walpole’s original design is still continuing, most of the house is now open and well worth a visit.

Strawberry Hill House. Photo reproduced under Wiki Commons licence

Walpole’s grand design is shown in the photo above and stretched as far as the round tower. The original building (although much modified) can be made out on the right, with the colonnade and round tower being completely new additions by Walpole. The small section that stretches beyond the tower (with an outdoor staircase leading to the first floor) was built later as a ballroom and other rooms were added to the original house. The whole thing, as built by Walpole, combined a Gothic grandeur with a very domestic scale. If you count the windows, you’ll see that it’s not that large. Indeed, it was intended only as a summer villa and was closed up in the winter. Staff there will tell you that it is still very cold on chilly days.

The building was always intended to be open to visitors. Originally it housed Walpole's impressive collection of art, although one of his descendants sold all of it off in 1842, having gone bankrupt. The idea was that a journey through the house should take you from its dark, mysterious entrance hall through rooms lit by skylights and stained-glass windows, until you arrived in the great State Rooms, full of light and gilding. The photo shows the Gallery. Fifty-six feet long, thirteen wide and seventeen high, this is the most splendid room in the house. The gold leaf used on the ceiling was the most expensive single element of the restoration. As with all the other detail in the house, the Gothic elements have been shamelessly stolen from elsewhere. In this case, the ceiling is a copy of that in one of the side aisles of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Although visually convincing, it is not really a fan vault, since it does not support the roof, being made of papier mache.

The Gallery at Strawberry Hill House. Photo: author’s own

Originally, the walls here (mostly covered with red damask) would have had a lot more paintings on them. The paintings were lost when Walpole’s collection was sold off, although they are gradually being replaced with copies.

The use of other materials to give the effect of stone is common throughout the building. Many of the apparently stone walls and ceilings are brick and wood panelling, carefully painted to give the appearance of stone. Similarly, some of the fireplaces, which may look like stone or marble, are painted wood. A good example is the chimney piece in the Library. (The painting that would have hung in the middle has been located and the gap will soon be filled with a copy of it.) Again, the details are copied from genuinely Gothic elements: in this case the chimney piece is based on the tomb of John of Eltham Earl of Cornwall in Westminster Abbey while the stone work is copied from the tomb of Thomas Duke of Clarence at Canterbury.

The Library. Photo: author’s own

Strawberry Hill House is now a popular visitor destination, complete with a cafĂ© in Walpole’s Great Cloyster, which opens on to the beautiful gardens. You can get married there and there are fetes and events for children and families. Walpole may not have approved of the children (they were specifically forbidden from visiting when he lived there) but he would otherwise have been pleased to see his Gothic fantasy still delighting visitors in exactly the way he originally intended. Pleased and surprised: he was not building for posterity and, indeed, his detailed cataloguing of the contents of the house was done because he anticipated that his collection would be broken up.

It would be a strange fascination he wrote … to expect that a paper fabric and an assemblage of curious trifles, made by an insignificant man, should at last or be treated with more penetration and respect than the trophies of a palace … [T]he following account of pictures and rarities is given with a view to their future dispersion.

The collection was, indeed, broken up, but thanks to Walpole’s meticulous cataloguing, we can recreate at least an impression of what it must have once been like and, more importantly, we can walk again in the rooms that he built to house it.

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Tom Williams is the author of His Majesty's Confidential Agent, which has just been published by Accent Press. Most of it is set in Argentina, which was convenient for him as his main interests are tango and street skating and Buenos Aires turns out to be a really good place to do both of them. Tom writes about 19th century history, Argentina and tango on his blog.


His Majesty's Confidential Agent is a Napoleonic War spy story. The hero, James Burke, was a real person who lied and spied for Britain. There's skulduggery and battles and beautiful women. Swashes are buckled and bodices ripped as Burke fights and intrigues his way from the jungles of Haiti, through the court of the Spanish king, to a bloody climax in Buenos Aires. James Bond meets Richard Sharpe in a tale that is rooted surprisingly firmly in historical fact.



2 comments:

  1. I found this quite intriguing. The history of the house and information on the architecture and collevtion is very interesting.

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