About this post:

Author: Chris Yeo

Date: 5th October, 2017


Gothic Fantasy

It was a ground breaking experiment in architecture and interior design, the inspiration for the first horror novel and, at one time, the most famous house in Britain. But Horace Walpole’s flamboyant, eccentric Strawberry Hill house wasn’t always treated like a jewel. After falling into serious decay a multi-million pound restoration has seen it rise, phoenix like from the ashes, with interiors which are truly inspirational. “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo tells a story fit for Halloween.

A castle broods in its woodland setting. Jagged spires, pinnacles and battlements pierce and puncture the darkening sky. Gargoyles and horned beasts lurk on the parapet and cling from the rooftop, fangs bared. Have I stumbled upon a vampire’s lair? I check my watch. How soon until nightfall? Should I leave now before the sun goes down and the owner puts in an appearance? Then the roar of an aeroplane en route to Heathrow reminds that this isn’t darkest Transylvania but leafy Twickenham, ten miles from Piccadilly Circus, and the building in question is a house called Strawberry Hill. That said, my allusions to classic horror films aren’t too off kilter. This is, after all, the house in which the first gothic horror novel was literally dreamt up. Early one morning in June 1764 its owner, the writer and collector Horace Walpole awoke from a vivid dream in which he’d seen a giant armoured fist hovering on the staircase of his newly built home. This menacing vision inspired him to write the Castle of Otranto, which with its ruined castles and haunted corridors, would set the mould for every gothic tale thereafter, influencing works from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the kitschy Hammer House of Horror films of Christopher Lee. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to be taken aback by its appearance: “Lord God! Jesus! What a house!” cried Lady Townsend on an early visit. “It is just such a house as the parson’s where the children lie at the end of the bed.”

For a building which illicits such reactions and one which few people have heard of, Strawberry Hill’s legacy was huge. As well as inspiring the whole horror genre, it was also the first private house to be built and decorated in the gothic style. Strawberry Hill kick-started a new fashion for the gothic in architecture and interiors which lasted for over a century and paved the way for a myriad of buildings – from the Houses of Parliament to railway stations and town halls – to be smothered in arches, turrets and pinnacles, and its interior decoration established a taste for antique furniture and decoration that is still with us. It was one of the must-see sights of the age and the man behind it was one of Georgian England’s most colourful and entertaining characters.

Horace Walpole (1717-97) was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, the genius politician who became Britain’s first prime minister. Horace was, however, cut from a different cloth. Waspish and effete, he bore little resemblance to his hearty, fox hunting loving father, whom he rarely saw. His manners and behaviour were, even by 18th century aristocratic standards, thought to be rather eccentric, one contemporary noting “he always entered a room in a style of affected delicacy. . . knees bent and feet on tip toe as if afraid of a wet floor.” Horace was a catty and astute observer of fashionable society. Hardly a party was thrown without Walpole on the side-lines taking sly notes for the amusement of posterity and – from his letters and diaries – we can rely on him for a bitchy opinion on everything from marital infedility to chandeliers. He evaded matrimony, remaining to his death aged 79 what used to be called a confirmed bachelor, but he had a penchant for the company of old ladies and un­marriageable or disgraced noblewomen.

As the son of one of Georgian England’s most powerful men, Horace enjoyed a privileged position in elite society. He had time and a lot of money and he dedicated his life to spending both beautifully. He was a compulsive collector, probably the greatest of his age. Over more than fifty years he amassed an extraordinary collection which embraced antiquities, rare books and manuscripts, pictures, prints and drawings, furniture, ceramics, armour and curiosities. Amongst his many interests he was a devotee of Romanticism – the rock and roll of the mid-18th century – where strong emotions such as awe, horror and trepidation could be seen as an aesthetic experience. He also revelled in the new appreciation for Medieval architecture, castle ruins, tomb sculpture and stained glass. These twin interests crystallised into a movement known as the ‘Gothick’, an aesthetic that was intimately bound up with the pursuit of something unearthly, mysterious and more than a little theatrical. And in Horace Walpole, for whom the entire world was a stage, it found its greatest champion. At Strawberry Hill, over a period of 45 years, he created a glorious Gothic fantasy both inside and out.

While we now know Twickenham chiefly for its links with the very un-Walpolean world of rugby, in the 18th century it was a resort for fashionable society, a two-hour carriage drive from London, but enjoying some rays of royal glamour from nearby Richmond Palace and Hampton Court. Famous residents at the time included the poet Alexander Pope and the celebrated comic actress Kitty Clive. In 1747, Walpole leased a nondescript suburban house owned by the owner of a famous London shop. To modern eyes, the house is palatial, but by the standards of Georgian magnificence it was a dolls house. Walpole himself described it as “a little plaything that I got out of Mrs Chevenix’s toy shop and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.” When he bought the house it was a small 17th Century building of little distinction, known as Chopp’d Straw Hall. Walpole, perhaps unsurprisingly, wasn’t too fond of this name and while searching through some old deed relating to the land he’d just purchased, he found the name “Strawberry Hill”, which he then adopted as the name for his new home. Strawberry Hill was conceived as an architectural illusion, a miniature Gothic castle built around the bones of Walpole’s country house using techniques such as papier-mâché, wood and plaster moulded and painted to look like carved stone.

Inside, the house was conceived very much like a Gothic tale. Walpole wished to create the sense of “a journey from dark to light”, from the “gloomth” (Walpole’s word) of the castle-like entrance hall and stairway, down dark saturnine 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. “all gothicism and gold, crimson and looking glass.” as one visitor put it. Aided by his friend Robert Adam, Walpole raided the architectural dressing-up box, using details lifted 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.

Despite Horace’s prediction that his “paper house” would be blown away 10 years after he was dead, Strawberry Hill soldiered on. However, as the fun-loving 18th century gave way to the altogether more serious 19th, Walpole’s star started to fade and his interiors, once the talk of all London, fell out of fashion.

During the last century the building went through various guises including, latterly, a priests’ seminary who occupied the building for 70 years until 1992. By the mid-1990s the house was in a serious state of disrepair and was placed on the English Heritage at Risk Register. Its fortunes changed, however, in 2008 when a local group, the Strawberry Hill Trust, succeeded in securing £8.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donors to complete a major restoration of 20 rooms, many of them grand public spaces, and the exterior, with its battlements, spires and gargoyles.

The restoration of Strawberry Hill has seen the colours and textures of Horace Walpole’s home painstakingly recreated. Headed by architect Inskip + Jenkins, the project authentically reinstates architectural detail and decoration of the interior, which features wallpaper fabricated at one of the few handmade paper makers in the British Isles, Griffen Mill in Ireland, and printed using wooden blocks hand carved in America. Sophisticated microscopy techniques were used to analyse paint colours which were then recreated using real pigments such as cochineal, a scarlet dye from a tropical parasite, and pure blue verditer, a copper salt made to imitate lapis lazuli.

The results are nothing short of a triumph. Rich, jewel-like hues lend a richness to Horace’s beloved “gloomth”. The private rooms have modern, extravagant patterns, and contrasting colours, very much influenced by imported textiles and pictures bought by Walpole when touring Italy on his Grand Tour. All over the house, the restoration has breathed a new sense of life into these remarkable interiors. Horace would be astonishes and delighted that his ‘paper house’ is still standing and delighting visitors as much now as it did then.

Image Credits
Ken Stradling Collection / Authors’ Own