In May 1747 Horace Walpole took a lease on a small 17th-century house that was "little more than a cottage", with 5 acres (20,000 m2) of land from a Mrs. Chenevix. Horace was under familial and political pressure to establish a country seat, especially a family castle, which was a fashionable practice during the period. The following year he purchased the house which the original owner, a coachman, had named "Chopped Straw Hall". This was intolerable to Walpole, "his residence ought, he thought, to possess some distinctive appellation; of a very different character..." Finding an old lease that described his land as "Strawberry Hill Shot", Walpole adopted this new name for his soon to be "elegant villa".
In stages, Walpole rebuilt the house to his own specifications, giving it a Gothic style and expanding the property to 46 acres (190,000 m2) over the years. As Rosemary Hill notes, "Strawberry Hill was the first house without any existing medieval fabric to be [re]built from scratch in the Gothic style and the first to be based on actual historic examples, rather than an extrapolation of the Gothic vocabulary first developed by William Kent. As such it has a claim to be the starting point of the Gothic Revival."
Walpole and two friends, including the connoisseur and amateur architect, John Chute (1701–1776), and draughtsman and designer, Richard Bentley (1708–1782), called themselves a "Committee of Taste" or "Strawberry Committee"[which would modify the architecture of the building. Bentley left the group abruptly after an argument in 1761. Chute had an "eclectic but rather dry style" and was in charge of designing most of the exterior of the house and some of the interior. To Walpole, he was an "oracle of taste". Walpole often disagreed with Bentley on some of his wayward schemes, but admired his talent for illustration.
William Robinson of the Royal Office of Works contributed professional experience in overseeing construction. They looked at many examples of architecture in England and in other countries, adapting such works as the chapel at Westminster Abbey built by Henry VII for inspiration for the fan vaulting of the gallery, without any pretence at scholarship. Chimney-pieces were improvised from engravings of tombs at Westminster and Canterbury and Gothic stone fretwork blind details were reproduced by painted wallpapers, while in the Round Tower added in 1771, the chimney-piece was based on the tomb of Edward the Confessor "improved by Mr. Adam".
He incorporated many of the exterior details of cathedrals into the interior of the house. Externally there seemed to be two predominant styles 'mixed'; a style based on castles with turrets and battlements, and a style based on Gothic cathedrals with arched windows and stained glass.
The building evolved similarly to how a medieval cathedral often evolved over time, with no fixed plan from the beginning. Indeed, Michael Snodin argues, "the most striking external feature of Strawberry Hill was its irregular plan and broken picturesque silhouette". Walpole added new features over a thirty-year period, as he saw fit.
The first stage to make, in Walpole's words, a 'little Gothic castle' began in 1749 and was complete by 1753, a second stage began in 1760, and there were other modifications such as work on the great north bedchamber in 1772, and the "Beauclerk Tower" of the third phase of alterations, completed to designs of a professional architect, James Essex, in 1776. The total cost came to about £20,720.
Walpole's 'little Gothic castle' has significance as one of the most influential individual buildings of such Rococo "Gothick" architecture which prefigured the later developments of the nineteenth century Gothic revival, and for increasing the use of Gothic designs for houses. This style has variously been described as Georgian Gothic, Strawberry Hill Gothic, or Georgian Rococo.
Walpole's eccentric and unique style on the inside rooms of Strawberry Hill complemented the Gothic exterior. The house is described by Walpole as "the scene that inspired, the author of The Castle of Otranto", though Michael Snodin has observed: "it is an interesting comment on 18th-century sensibility that the melancholy interiors of The Castle of Otranto were suggested by the light, elegant, even whimsical rooms at Strawberry Hill".
The interiors of Walpole's "little play-thing house" were intended to be "settings of Gothic 'gloomth' for Walpole's collection". His collection of curious, singular, antiquarian objects was well publicized; Walpole himself published two editions of A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill to make the "world aware of the extent of his collection".
Speaking on Walpole's collection, Clive Wainwright states that Walpole's collection "constituted an essential part of the interiors of his house". The character of the rooms at Strawberry Hill was "created and dictated" by Walpole's taste for antiquarianism. Though even without the collection present, the house "retains a fairy-tale quality".
Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill Collection of several thousand items can still be viewed today. The Lewis Walpole Library of Yale University now has a database which "encompasses the entire range of art and artifacts from Walpole's collections, including all items whose location is currently known and those as yet untraced but known through a variety of historical records".
For Walpole, physical objects were doorways to the past. Most of the things at Strawberry Hill told at least one story. Walpole put great emphasis on the provenance of the objects he assembled and delighted in being able to add his name to the list of famous collectors reaching back to the 16th century.
Walpole's collection of ceramics was the largest and most varied in England. It ranged from ancient Greek pots and masterpieces of Renaissance maiolica and earthenware through to modern porcelain.
Walpole believed that his collection of enamels and miniatures was the 'largest and finest in any country'. By his death in 1797, he owned around 130 miniatures, painted in watercolour on vellum or ivory, and nearly 40 enamels. Walpole's account of miniatures and enamels in the Anecdotes of Painting established their reputation as a serious art form.
From the 1770s, Strawberry Hill became famous for 'Works of Genius … by Persons of Rank and Gentlemen not artists'. Most of these amateur artists were women, chief among them the painter and designer Lady Diana Beauclerk and the sculptor Anne Damer.
Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England, published by the Strawberry Hill Press between 1762 and 1780, was the first history of English art. Walpole modelled it on Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and it still forms the basis of English art history. In its complete form the Anecdotes included sections on sculptors, architects and engravers, and an 'Essay on Modern Gardening'.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Horace Walpole & Strawberry Hill', on display at the V&A South Kensington between 6 March and 4 July 2010.
The exhibition was organised by the V&A, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, and the Yale Center for British Art.
To explore more of Walpole's original collection, visit the Lewis Walpole Library database of objects in their collection.
Following extensive restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust, the house re-opened in 2010. To find out more, visit the Friends of Strawberry Hill website.
Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole's fantasy castle, to open its doors again
Private rooms in the pile that inspired the first Gothic novel in 1764, and a whole style of architecture, have always been off-limits to the public – until now
Strawberry Hill will reopen to the public on 1 March.
Wednesday 25 February 2015 17.10 GMT
The collector, scholar and legendary gossip Horace Walpole woke one morning in June 1764 in the extraordinary fantasy home he had created near the Thames, west of London.
Strawberry Hill had – and now has again after years of careful restoration – roof, battlement and mantelpieces bristling with spires and gargoyles, stairs and bookcases copied from the tombs of medieval kings. Its passageways and library ceilings were embellished with imagined ancestors, and windows glitter with stained glass collected by the crate load from across Europe.
On that summer morning he had experienced a dream so vivid that he sat down in his study and began to write a book which changed the course of literary history. The Castle of Otranto is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, and, with its knights, villains, wronged maidens, haunted corridors and things that go bump in the night, is the spiritual godfather of Frankenstein and Dracula, the creaking floorboards of Edgar Allan Poe and the shifting stairs and walking portraits of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. When the house reopens to the public on 1 March, visitors will be invited to sit down in Walpole’s study and read the book for themselves.
Many of the newly restored rooms have never been open to the public, including his bedroom and the room in which he died. Although Walpole entertained lavishly and also admitted paying visitors – sometimes retreating to a cottage across the road when overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of his public, and once evicted from his own breakfast room when a particularly grand visitor called unexpectedly – his own private rooms were always off-limits. They have now been dazzlingly restored through detective work involving scraps of original paint colour and shreds of wallpaper found on the edges of doors and fireplaces or hidden in the depths of cupboards.
Walpole himself prophesied that “my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead”, but, more than two centuries later, his house has survived – though by 2004 it appeared on the World Monument Fund’s list of the most important and endangered historic buildings in the world. It is now now leased and run by the Strawberry Hill trust and has been restored over the past decade, room by painstaking room, using grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, charities and public donations.
His house was a spectacular conjuring trick, as entertaining as its owner. It was a miniature medieval castle wrapped around a modest little country house, with papier-mache, wood and plaster moulded and painted to look like ancient carved stone.
Despite its many eccentricities, including a royal bedchamber where nobody ever slept, and hallways that were deliberately kept dark to create an atmosphere of medieval “gloomth” (Walpole’s word), the house has proved as influential as his book, setting the trend for Gothic revival architecture and giving the name Strawberry Hill still used for the style.
The décor of his own apartments cost a fortune, as has their recreation. Visitors will find his own rooms covered in brilliantly coloured wallpaper as startlingly heavily patterned as any Victorian parlour. Recreating them meant having the paper hand-made in northern Ireland, hand-dyed in the United States, and hand-flocked in England. In the grandest bedroom, a team of needleworkers is hand-quilting bed covers for the recreation of the grandest bed, inherited by Walpole from the father he worshipped – Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister whose town house was No 10 Downing Street.
Michael Snodin, chair of the trust, steps out on the landing directly outside Walpole’s bedroom door. Its features include a recreated medieval painting of jousting knights, and a wall decoration of a pyramid of arms and armour including a modern replica of a Scottish broadsword, and a genuine antique Indian shield covered with rhinoceros hide. In Walpole’s day there was also a full suit of heavily decorated and gilded armour, which he believed had once belonged to a French king, standing in an arched niche – the first recorded use of that cliché of every haunted house movie.
“Walpole said his dream was of a mailed hand on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase,” Snodin says, “and this is undoubtedly the scene of his dream. Walpole created this house, and this house created that book.”
Walpole invited the public to share the house he described as his “little plaything … the prettiest bauble you ever saw”, but the rules were strict: a surviving admission ticket warns it “will admit four persons and no more … NB The House and Garden are never shown in an Evening; and Persons are desired not to bring Children with them.”
Strawberry Hill House: blast from a Gothic past
Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole's wondrous house, has reopened. Nigel Richardson explores it.
By Nigel Richardson8:00AM BST 09 Oct 2010
Like a heroine in a Gothic novel, a piece of architectural exotica in south-west London is in the process of awakening from a long slumber.
Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham is the glorious figment of Horace Walpole's imagination made manifest, and as a £9 million restoration reaches the end of its first phase it is from this month once again greeting visitors, as it did when Walpole lived here in the second half of the 18th century.
Last month, workmen found a collection of visiting cards and letters that had slipped down the back of a chimney piece in the house. They include a note from a Mr Roffey of Kingston who "begs the favour to know if Himself and 3 more may be permitted to see Mr Warpoles [sic] House on next Wednesday at 12 o Clock…" He and many others, from royalty to clerks, came to marvel at a building that Michael Snodin, the man who has kissed Strawberry Hill back to life, describes as pioneering.
"It was the first building to be Gothic inside and outside, and to be a real house," says Snodin, who is chairman of the Strawberry Hill Trust, the body that is overseeing the restoration. "So it launched the Gothic Revival and led to buildings such as the Houses of Parliament."
Its other cultural significance is that it was here, inspired by his surroundings, that Walpole wrote what is arguably the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, which became the progenitor of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the works of Bram Stoker and so on.
From the moment he moved here in 1747, Horace Walpole – politician, writer, collector and visionary – loved the house and its locale. "Pope's ghost is just now skimming under my window in a most poetical moonlight," he wrote, in reference to the poet Alexander Pope, who had died three years before, having lived just down the road on the west bank of the Thames.
Twickenham in the 18th century was a rural retreat for London's wealthy, fashionable and artistic types. Walpole spent the winters in Arlington Street, off Piccadilly, and in the summer decamped to Strawberry Hill where, over 45 years, he created a glorious Gothic fantasy both inside and out, calling it whimsically "the castle I am building of my ancestors".
From the structure of the original, conventional country house grew pinnacles, finials, "Tudor" chimneys and "medieval" battlements, while windows sprouted Gothic arches. The exterior was painted a dazzling white, in keeping with the other grand houses of the Thames Valley such as Marble Hill House, so that it looked like a piece of confectionery.
One of the triumphs of the restoration is that after enduring years clad in a drab "cementitious render" Strawberry Hill is once again the slice of wedding cake that Walpole dreamed into being.
Inside, Snodin explains, Walpole wished to create the sense of "a picturesque journey from dark to light", from the "gloomth" of the castle-like entrance hall and stairway, down dark corridors, to the dazzling brightness of the Gallery, "his great showroom", with its ceiling of gold and white plaster and papier mâché, and walls of red damask.
Aided by his friend Robert Adam, Walpole used details from Gothic monuments and buildings – a rose window from old St Paul's, the tomb of Edward the Confessor – as inspiration for chimneypieces and ceilings, and animated the house with his own vast collection of books, paintings, furniture, artworks and objects.
The one aspect of Strawberry Hill that is beyond the scope of the restoration is this collection. Following his death in 1797, Walpole's belongings were sold at auction in 1842 and dispersed to the four winds, though the trust is trying to locate as many as possible with a view to borrowing them or even buying them back.
Walpole left Strawberry Hill to the Waldegrave family and it was sold in 1923 to St Mary's University College, a Catholic teacher training college, from which the Strawberry Hill Trust now leases the house. By the turn of the 21st century it had fallen into a state of extreme disrepair and was listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world's 100 most endangered heritage sites.
Once the funds had been raised to restore it – the chief benefactor being the Heritage Lottery Fund, which gave £4.9 million – recreating the original proved remarkably easy. Not only was much of the 18th-century fabric still in place, but no house had been as extensively documented as was Strawberry Hill in Walpole's meticulous, room-by-room description of 1784.
The result is that his extraordinary vision has been brought back to life (though some rooms and the grounds await completion next year). Visiting it is like walking through one man's imagination, which is what Snodin means when he describes it as a "personality house".
The reactions of Mr Roffey of Kingston, when he visited Strawberry Hill some 250 years ago, are not recorded. But you can be sure he was no less dumbstruck than you will be.
Strawberry Hill basics
Strawberry Hill House (020 8744 3124, www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk) is at 268 Waldegrave Road, London TW1 4ST, a five-minute walk from Strawberry Hill railway station (direct trains from Waterloo). The house opened last Saturday and will remain open until December 22, Saturday-Wednesday, noon until 4.30pm. Admission £8 (concessions £7), which includes audio-guide and booklet. There will be timed entries of 20 people at a time and booking is strongly advised. It reopens on April 2 2011.