by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Strawberry Hill Trust
Rooftops at Strawberry Hill, 2011

Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole's 'new old house'

By Roderick Conway Morris
STRAWBERRY HILL, England 23 March 2011


Horace Walpole transformed the Gothic Revival from a primarily decorative fashion into a major architectural movement, but posterity has not always been kind to him or his creation.

Architectural historians now widely acknowledge that his Gothic house, Strawberry Hill, or 'the castle,' near Twickenham on the banks of the Thames, led to countless other edifices in a similar style, from the Houses of Parliament in London and Victoria Station in Mumbai, to the Town Hall in Vienna, the Parliament building in Budapest and innumerable public buildings and school campuses around the globe.

Yet in 2004 Strawberry Hill was in a sorry state and listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world's 100 most endangered heritage sites. From the small beginnings of a local neighborhood group, the Friends of Strawberry Hill, the rescue effort blossomed into the Strawberry Hill Trust and raised £9 million, or about $14.4 million, to restore the building, which is scheduled to officially reopen to the public on April 2.

The restoration program, lasting seven years, was supported by numerous bodies, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, and many charitable and private donations. Among the fund-raisers was Lord Waldegrave, a descendant of the Walpole family (which sold the house to the neighboring St. Mary's University College in 1923).

Horace Walpole, a writer, historian and collector, was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister. Although he himself sat in Parliament for a period, Horace was little interested in politics, preferring to spend his time writing and realizing his Gothic fantasies, a task that occupied him from 1747 until 1792.

He founded the first significant private press at the house in 1757. He wrote the first Gothic novel, 'The Castle of Otranto' (1764), inspired by a dream he had there of a 'gigantic hand in armor on the utmost banister of a great staircase.' And by opening Strawberry Hill to visitors in the mid-1770s, he established the concept of the house-museum.

The English gentlemanly assumption, to which Walpole subscribed - that there was nothing more ridiculous than to be seen to take oneself too seriously - obscured the true seriousness of his activities as an original writer, researcher and designer. Within 25 years of Walpole's death in 1797, the politician and writer Lord Macaulay was loftily condemning him as 'the most eccentric, the most artificial, the most fastidious of men.'

Even his collection - containing pieces now regarded as treasures by the museums, including the Metropolitan in New York and the Victoria and Albert in London, that were fortunate enough to acquire them - was dismissed as 'baubles' and 'trinkets.' Much of the contents of the house was dispersed in the so-called Great Sale of 1842, held by George Waldegrave, an unruly and profligate heir.

Pugin was typical of more heavyweight Victorian architects in finding Walpole's approach to the Gothic too whimsical, but he and his colleagues were inevitably indebted to Strawberry Hill as the first complete Gothic Revival building based on historical and archeological research.

In 1747, Walpole initially leased, and afterward bought, the less romantically named 'Chopp'd Straw Hall' in its five acres, or two hectares, from a Mrs. Chevenix, owner of a shop selling china ornaments and novelties in central London. Two years later, Walpole decided to remodel his 'little play-thing-house,' as he called it, in the Gothic style and began a series of expansions that were to engage him for much of the rest of his life.

His father had built himself a Palladian-style country seat at Houghton in Norfolk and retired there as the first Earl of Orford in 1742. But Horace had other ideas, and indeed his Gothic extravaganza was to some extent a reaction against the almost total dominance of Palladian architecture at that time.

The Walpoles were relative newcomers to the British elite. Horace was aware that by extending and decorating his house in an antique style, and in a manner that appeared as though this monument was the result of a centuries-long process of accretions, he was at the same time playfully constructing a venerable pedigree that his family did not possess. He jokingly referred to his 'new old house' and described it as 'the castle I am building of my ancestors.'

Visitors will now enter it exactly as Walpole intended, through the Great North Gate, a large oak door leading into a walled courtyard. From there they will be guided by Walpole himself, either in the form of a charming booklet, a condensed version of the creator's own 'Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole,' first published in 1784, or an audio guide, with Walpole and his redoubtable housekeeper Margaret Young played by actors.

The courtyard, with its cloister, niches, basins for holy water and Abbot's garden, seems that of a monastery, but after crossing the threshold of the house visitors find themselves in more of a medieval castle with a tenebrous staircase lit by a single lantern - the first of a series of highly theatrical transformations.

The successive 'scenes' were worked out with immense thought and considerable subtlety. As Walpole noted: 'Great effects may be produced by the disposition of a house & by studying light and shades, and by attending to a harmony of colors.'

These words come from a fascinating manuscript quoted by Michael Snodin, contributing editor of a sumptuously illustrated volume by a team of scholars, 'Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill' (published by Yale University Press).

One of the first rooms visitors come upon is the library, the most purely Gothic in the whole house, with its monochrome stone-grey Gothic arcade of bookcases and chimney-piece, inspired by two medieval tombs. But from the beginning they will also pass through several more colorful and comfortable spaces - for this was a riverside summer villa to be lived in and enjoyed.

As Walpole himself remarked: 'In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience and modern refinements in luxury.'

Indeed, the house has some revolutionary innovations that were not to be taken up by other architects until the 20th century. A number of the arched Gothic window frames, to take but one example, can be slid back into the walls, producing a 'picture window' effect, framing broad uninterrupted vistas of the surrounding park. And, as their designer writes of the Great Bed Chamber: 'The great size of the rest of the window, which is of plate glass, & the uncommon cheerfulness of the views, make the outside as beautiful as the inside.'

The grandest single hall is the Gallery, reached by a narrow passageway, 'which makes the richness and largeness of the gallery appear more considerable,' in Walpole's words. This room, 'all Gothicism, & gold, & crimson, & looking-glass,' as the poet Thomas Gray described it, was used to display the owner's collection of canvases, widely dispersed but now being replaced by excellent facsimiles.

In writing of the Gallery, Walpole made a telling aesthetic observation: 'In hanging pictures, opposition makes harmony.' This philosophy could generally be extended to Strawberry Hill, which, with his characteristic humorous self-deprecation, Walpole referred to as a 'small capricious house, built to please my own taste, and in some degree to realize my own visions' - a statement that hides the true importance of this unique enterprise and its ability to delight and amaze even today.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023