This weekend I finally got around to visiting Strawberry Hill House. It’s only a couple of miles or so away from us, and it's ridiculous but we never been there since it was opened to the public a few years ago. It's supposed to mark the start of the Gothic revival in British architecture and it was built over several decades in the second half of the 18th century. It was finished in 1776, so it pre-dates the period of my latest book, Burke in the Land of Silver, though not by much.
The house was built by Horace Walpole, the son of Britain's first Prime Minister. He had acquired land near the Thames at Twickenham. It was an attractive location, with many grand houses on the stretch of the river from Kew Palace to Hampton Court. 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’s book, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, is regarded as Britain's first Gothic novel. Walpole was a huge fan of Gothicism and decided to build himself a small but perfect Gothic palace. The result is shown in the photo below:
Strawberry Hill House. Photo reproduced under Wiki Commons licence
Walpole’s grand design stretched as far as the round tower. 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 below 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.
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.
Our visit to Strawberry Hill vastly improved a wet and miserable Bank Holiday. I recommend it.
Nearest station: Strawberry Hill (from Waterloo). The house is a five to ten minute walk from the station: follow the sign at the end of each platform.