Last updated on April 23rd, 2021 at 10:10 am
Strawberry Hill House in London’s leafy suburb of Twickenham is possibly the most unusual house in London. If Oscar Wilde and Nicky Haslam had sired a love child in the eighteenth century, I think it would have been its architect, a Horatio “Horace” Walpole. He had wit, he had style, and he clearly lived by the adage that more is more. And his lasting legacy is a holiday pad like no other: it’s a gothic object d’art in itself, totally bonkers and absolutely fabulous. Come on a tour of Strawberry Hill House with me, and witness the art of gloomth. You might want to pack some smelling salts.
Residents of Strawberry Hill House
Born in 1717, Horace Walpole was the son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge after which he embarked on a Grand Tour from 1739 to 1741. The expedition would influence the interior design of his future home, although many of the Gothic references would come from buildings closer to home.
Strawberry Hill House wasn’t named after fruit but after ‘Chopp’d Straw Hall,’ a site in then fashionable Twickenham on the banks of the river Thames, not far from where J M W Turner would also setup up residence a few years later. Originally two cottages, Walpole leased the land from a Mrs Chenevix, owner of a genteel toy shop. Walpole would go on to build a Gothic castle on the land, one which would become a famous tourist attraction even in his day.
“It is a little play-thing of a house that I got out of Mrs Chenevix’s shop and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.”
During his lifetime, he would write some 7000 letters, and he launched the country’s first private press at Strawberry Hill. He penned the original Gothic book, The Castle of Otranto, a precursor to Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, Edgar Allen Poe’s tales and one could even argue, Harry Potter.
Horace Walpole was the Samuel Pepys of the age, recording all sorts of juicy tidbits about the badly-behaved Georgians. He coined the word ‘serendipity’. He was a confirmed bachelor until his death at the age of 79. His sexuality is the subject of much debate, but his effete demeanour is not.
Following Walpole’s death, the house passed on down to various descendants. By 1842, the house was in severe trouble when George Waldegrave, a drunk and a gambler, dispersed the contents of the property all over the world in the ‘Great Sale’ of 1842.
And so steps in Lady Frances Waldegrave (who would go on to become Countess). After three marriages and a scandalous past, she put her extraordinary will into the restoration and renovation of Strawberry Hill. To cater for her illustrious parties, she created a horseshoe drive which gave le tout London the runway they needed to disembark in style. The house became the talk of the town and the unofficial headquarters for the Liberal party.
After Countess Waldegrave’s death, the house passed on to the de Stern family who then sold it to St Mary’s University College. Following a National Lottery grant of 10 million pounds, the house re-opened in 2010. Thanks to the comprehensive information left by Walpole in A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole, the house has been sympathetically restored and is now a true architectural gem.
Gloomth and Gothic Architecture
If Hogwarts had a home in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill House would be it. Broomsticks and Dementors might be missing, but not much else. Walpole put together a “Committee of Taste” with fellow Goths who aided and abetted in the design of Strawberry Hill: John Chute whom he met on the Grand Tour, Richard Bentley who was responsible for many of the more whimsical elements, and Thomas Pitt, a neighbour with architectural know-how. He brought in starchitect Robert Adam to design some of the more classical elements, if you can call it that.
“my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead” (Horace Walpole)
Using light and darkness through the use of oversized windows and stained glass, they created the “Gloomth” effect. Features were modelled after St Paul’s Cathedral, Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and the Uffizi in Florence. He amassed a collection of 6000 knick-knacks, dotted around his fanciful Gothic villa.
It may not be the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, but I’ll bet Louis XIV would have had a real kick out of The Gallery.
The fan-vaulted ceiling was designed by John Chute and is of 24-carat papier-maché. Yes, you read right. The recesses were designed by Thomas Pitt.
“Well! I begin to be ashamed of my magnificence.”(Horace Walpole)
I present you with the Round Room, designed by starchitect of the day, Robert Adam. Red damask lines the walls, and the ceiling is based on St Paul’s Cathedral. The heraldic stained-glass windows were installed when Lady Waldegrave lived in the house.
The bed seen here is a copy of the one in which Sir Robert Walpole died in 1745. It was one of the first pieces of furniture that Walpole son installed in his gothic villa. Students in the London Metropolitan University made the bed frame, and members of the Strawberry Hill Sewing Bee reproduced the soft furnishings in the original manner in a sort of modern cottage industry. The quilt is hand-knotted and took 620 hours to make. The blue walls were reproduced using such expensive materials as cobalt and lapis lazuli. Above the fireplace is a portrait of Walpole’s parents in an oversized frame which barely fits the space.
The Library will leave bookworms breathless. Literally. The ceiling was designed by Walpole, whilst the bookcases were by Chute and based on the choir stalls of St Paul’s Cathedral. Old and new stained glass stand shoulder to shoulder in the window with Faith, Hope, Charity, Charles I and Charles II making a glassy appearance.
The Tribune was Walpole’s treasure room. Based on the Uffizi Palace in Florence, the Tribuna houses the Medici’s most precious loot. Wapole used his to display his favourite fanciful objects most of which were miniatures (coins, medals, paintings and enamels). You could marvel at his loot through the locked grille (designed by Sit Thomas Pitt) but you couldn’t touch.
The Holbein Chamber originally housed a number of Holbein copies (the originals were in Kensington Palace). The copies are now in Sudeley Castle so the ones you see here are in effect copies of copies! The fireplace confection is by Richard Bentley and based on a tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. The ceiling is papier-maché and a reproduction of the Queen’s Dressing Room in Windsor Castle. Ironically, after the fire of 1992, Walpole’s ceiling was used as the template for the re-creation of the Windsor ceiling reproduction.
Fast forward to Lady Frances Waldegrave’s renovations, and the house went from gothic gloomth to chi chi glam. The velvet ceiling in the Breakfast Room was made using one of the world’s first sewing machines. When George Bernard Shaw visited in the late 1920s, he said “this is a most immoral room.”
Different views of the garden from windows which are poles apart in design.
Afternoon Tea at Strawberry Hill House
Whatever you do, don’t miss the romantic five-acre garden when you visit Strawberry Hill. And once you’re done with the tour, you can rest your weary feet for some refreshment in the pretty café. Cream Tea is £7 and Walpole’s High Tea is £10 (add £5 for Prosecco). The gardens and café are open to the public without ticketed entry to the house. You can also bring picnics.
Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill – Masterpieces from Horace Walpole’s Collection
The magnificent collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and curiosities of Walpole’s day and which were dispersed all over the world in the famous sale of the century of 1842, will be reassembled this October. The once-in-a-lifetime exhibition will include masterpieces by Joshua Reynolds, Anthony Van Dyck and Hans Holbein, reunited in their original rooms.
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