“My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Horace Walpole once remarked. Today, this 18th-century aesthete is known largely as the author of The Castle of Otranto.
Published under a pseudonym in 1764, the work helped start the Georgian fad for Gothic novels: spine-tingling tales of mystery and romance set in ruined abbeys or castles, in which horrors and heroes skulk behind the arras.
Historians know Walpole for his political memoirs and his voluminous correspondence. Full of acute observations and gossip, Walpole’s letters are a rare English example of a form of writing normally associated with Ancien Régime France.
The son of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, Horace Walpole was content being an onlooker in politics, preferring to focus his attentions on what were then called “the polite arts”.
Walpole also seemed to adopt a passive role in the arts, although The Castle of Otranto was an exception. Collecting, commissioning and displaying furniture, paintings and historical relics was more important than designing his own work.
When Walpole bought a small, unprepossessing house on the edge of Twickenham in 1748, he was looking not for a home, but for a villa he could occupy in the summer months. Over more than three decades, he altered and extended the house, making it a showcase for the Gothic.
In doing so, Walpole was championing an unpopular style: one felt to lack symmetry and proportion; crude yet somehow fussy at the same time (all those crockets). Most patrons preferred to emulate the antique, designing their houses around fragments of ancient sculpture.
In the same way as Chinoiserie, Gothic was all very well in a folly or eye-catcher. But to live in? Recycling motifs and details from medieval and Tudor funerary monuments and chapels at Canterbury, Westminster and other cathedrals, Walpole’s Strawberry Hill gestured to an English past of romance, piety and hard-won freedoms. Pugin and the 19th-century Oxford Movement would transform this into a fully fledged architectural movement: Gothic revival.
Though far more earnest and based on greater familiarity with actual medieval buildings, this movement owed a great deal to Strawberry Hill. What the visitor sees today is essentially a concept house: a manifesto for a new style, with all the impracticalities that we have come to associate with such show homes. Walpole welcomed select influential visitors, and wrote the first visitors’ guide himself in 1784.
In preparing the house for today’s visitors, therefore, the Strawberry Hill Trust has, in one sense, had it easy. From the first glimpse of the crocketed roofline, this is a house that grabs the attention and does not let go.
Instead of writing their own guide, the Friends have wisely opted to give visitors an abridged, pocket-sized version of Walpole’s original, prefaced with a brief introduction. The optional audio guide takes the form of a playlet in which Walpole and his housekeeper discuss the house and its visitors.
Work in progress
As Strawberry Hill is a small building, tickets are for timed entry. But apart from a short introductory video visitors can move about as they wish. Several rooms were being refurbished when I visited.
Rather than being jarring, the glimpse of ladders and whiff of paint seemed appropriate, historically accurate, even: Strawberry Hill was a work in progress for much of the time that Walpole lived there. The ongoing work also made the absence of his furniture and collections (dispersed in an epic 1842 sale) less noticeable.
The changes wrought by Horace and later residents clearly presented the trust with countless challenging questions as to how far back to take the interiors. With the help of the video and the room guides, it was easy to spot areas where such judgements still hung in the balance.
Rather than being presented with a shrink-wrapped historical snapshot, visitors are encouraged to acknowledge the difficulties of reconstruction, and imagine what they might do differently. To a certain extent, of course, we all do this in country houses, but at Strawberry Hill, one feels there is special licence.
Walpole’s use of coloured top lighting and careful stage management of vistas through and across rooms is so masterful as to be almost cinematic: a building less of paper than of celluloid. It might be described as a miniature, Georgian equivalent of William Randolph Hearst’s castle north of Los Angeles, or a bijou Xanadu.
The hall leading from the Star Chamber to the fan-vaulted Gallery is particularly effective at creating a mood of the uncanny. Horace claimed that the vision of the massive gauntlet, which kicks off The Castle of Otranto, was based on a dream he had about the main staircase at Strawberry Hill. Now I have seen the house,I can easily imagine the like happening to him or, now, to me.
I greatly enjoyed my visit, and look forward to returning when more rooms are completed, not least to see if the heraldic beasts on the staircase are indeed painted to look like stone (leave them gilt!).
Room stewards are mercifully free from that National Trust tendency to bound up to you with unwanted factoids like a Labrador with a slobbery tennis ball. The cafe is excellent. The shop, by contrast, seemed rather spartan. Strawberry Hill is, in effect, a design museum, and Walpole would surely prefer something more of a “knicknackatory”.
Although it is better to have too little than too much, I also wonder whether there is enough interpretation. The introductory video and the room next to it give a good sense of the practicalities of the reconstruction. Yet key terms such as “Gothic novel” are not explained.
There is little attempt to explain the relationship between Strawberry Hill Gothic and the Gothic revival, even though the mid-Victorian additions to the south of the main tower afford a heaven-sent opportunity to highlight the similarities and differences. There’s a risk, therefore, that the visitor is left thinking of the house and its creator as eccentric cranks.
Walpole’s chapel is included in the guide, even though it stands on the campus of St Mary’s University College (which leases Strawberry Hill to the Trust).
Yet staff seemed unsure of its location. Although I did my best to follow their directions, I failed to find it. I was also struck by an absence of children, and of activities aimed at them. In the age of Harry Potter, it would surely be straightforward enough to come up with unobtrusive ways of capturing their attention.
These are minor quibbles, however. Strawberry Hill’s restoration has been a long time coming, but it has been well worth the wait.
Jonathan Conlin teaches history at the University of Southampton
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £4.9m; English Heritage; World Monuments Fund Britain; the Architectural Heritage Fund
Conservation architect Inskip + Jenkins
Project manager Fanshawe
Contractor E Bowman & Sons
Audio guide Holy Mountain
Structural engineer Mann Williams
M&E consultants Martin Thomas Associates