The newly restored pinnacles and chimneypots at Strawberry Hill: Richard Holttum

A Little Plaything Of A House

22nd October 2010

When Strawberry Hill was created, in the middle of the 18th century, Horace Walpole’s contemporaries marvelled over this mad Gothic mix of a building that was like a home, castle and monastery all in one. Now, as the first phase of an ambitious restoration programme is completed, visitors of today – including Jack Watkins – can also wonder at the place that Walpole called "a little plaything of a house".

There’s hardly a finer stretch of London than in the vicinity of the Thames as the river flows westwards beyond Chiswick and eventually on to Teddington. Grand houses, from Kew Palace and Marble Hill to Hampton Court, dot the landscape like exquisite baubles. But one gem, a couple of minutes back from the riverfront at Twickenham, seemed for a number of years as though it had disappeared off the map.

Strawberry Hill, ‘the little Gothic castle’ of the 18th century style guru Horace Walpole, has spent most of the last two decades on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register, an undignified state of affairs for one of the most influential – and loveliest – properties of its day. Absorbed within the complex of St Mary’s University, while scarcely in danger of demolition, it was deemed ‘surplus to requirements’ by the college, and Walpole’s delicate and meticulous assemblage, now in a state of extreme disrepair, seemed in danger of falling into shabby, unloved obscurity.

Happily, many people thought that a building that had been a stepping stone to the 19th century neo-Gothic revival was too important to neglect in this way. A Strawberry Hill Trust, formed in 2002, was eventually able to take on the lease of the house, and after a lengthy campaign, embarked upon a £9m scheme, with money from such bodies as the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and a variety of other sponsors, charities and private patrons, to restore it. The Trust opened the doors for the public to see the results of the first (£4.9m) stage this month. While it is, therefore, still a work in progress, the results are impressive. It’s fair to say that London has an old ‘new addition’ to its list of attractions.

Pinnacles: Kilian O’Sullivan

Any first time visitor should, however, prepare themselves for a surprise. Think of medieval Gothic and you probably imagine massive cathedrals, with soaring spires, high-roofed naves and much carved masonry. The Victorian Gothic revival is symbolised by such buildings as the Houses of Parliament or St Pancras Station, massive structures that trumpet their presence on the skyline. But Strawberry Hill is dainty and refined, not ‘Gothic’, but ‘Gothick’ in the playful and picturesque, Georgian sense of the word.

Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, was born in 1717, as much an aesthete and eccentric as his father was one of the great power brokers on the world political stage. He was, to put it mildly, a bit of a card. A childless homosexual, a dilettante and a collector of books, paintings and furniture, he was also a prodigious letter writer and a formidable wit. “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think,” was a typically Walpolean observation. He also penned what became regarded as the first Gothic horror novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, its atmosphere inspired by the spooky corridors of Strawberry Hill itself.

But when Walpole acquired the property in 1747, it was simply an unpretentious little villa, occupying the last unbuilt portion of land in Twickenham with a view of the river. He immediately set about transforming it into a mock castle, partly to amuse himself, partly to enrage the Palladian taste makers of the time, the rulers of the roost with their lofty pronouncements on the superiority of classical symmetry in architecture. Walpole, instead, delighted in the ‘whimsical air of novelty’ of Gothic motifs, which were already finding favour in the Picturesque movement of landscape garden design. He set up a ‘Committee of Taste’ which, over the following thirty years, sourced features from various ancient Gothic buildings – Westminster Abbey and the old (pre-Wren) St Paul’s Cathedral among them – for the interiors and exteriors of his remodelled Strawberry Hill.

The Trust’s recent restoration has been similarly painstaking. The exterior, having acquired a grimy brown hue over the years, has been returned to Walpole’s original ‘wedding cake’ limewashed white. Stand back on the lawn for a moment and you’ll see circular towers reminiscent of a medieval castle in the Loire valley. The pinnacles could be those of a Gothic cathedral, the traceried windows those of an abbey. Inside, the hall and staircase evoke the creator’s favoured ‘gloomth’ – dark and mysterious – once more, and lead on to the contrasting light of the gallery, where Walpole’s eclecticism was never more apparent.

The Round Room Window: Richard Holttum

There are Moorish influences in the fretwork of the canopies, and the doors are modelled on those of St Albans Cathedral. The ceiling, copying the fan vaulting of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey, has been cleaned and regilded. Astonishingly, despite being made only of plaster and papier mâché, it was found to be in good order when the work of conservation began. It was in the gallery that Walpole entertained his friends, with 30 candles seeming to give off the light of a thousand in the reflected glow of the mirrors. “I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence,” he once remarked.

Tiny panels of stained glass add colour throughout the building, which Walpole himself styled like an early museum, pioneering the arrangement of objects to create ‘a journey through history’ for visitors. The Holbein Chamber, for instance, held contents evoking the reign of Henry VIII. The Round Room has a scagliola fireplace by Robert Adam which was inspired by Edward the Confessor’s tomb at Westminster Abbey.

Sadly, Horace Walpole’s vast collection, which ran from such curios as Cardinal Wolsey’s hat to what was apparently the finest collection of miniatures in the country, was unsentimentally auctioned off by its inheritor, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave, at a sale that ran for 28 days in 1842. The Trust is committed to retrieving parts of it, wherever it can. One of the factors that has aided the conservation and restoration programme has been the survival of Walpole’s correspondence and the careful way he recorded the house as it developed. Extracts from his ‘Description of the Villa’ are incorporated into a handy little booklet the Trust provide for the tours. Yet it’s clearly been a labour of love. “Had we known it would be so long and complicated, we probably would never have embarked upon it,” says the chairman Michael Snodin. Thankfully, they have persevered, and their ambitions even extend to restoring the gardens from next spring.

Walpole, it seems, did not embark on his project with an eye on posterity. “My buildings are paper, like my writings, and both will blow away in ten years after I am dead,” he wrote. How wrong he was. Strawberry Hill, a tourist attraction in its day, is to become so again.

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