In 2010 a remarkable house, situated south west of London, emerged from its chrysalis of scaffolding and protective cladding and was revealed in all its original glory: Strawberry Hill House. It has been likened to a wedding cake on account of its beautiful white exterior finish called ‘harling’ (a lime and pebble stucco render). It may be decorated like icing, but to me it is altogether lighter – more like a confection made of whipped cream! It really is a masterpiece and its resurrection is all the more remarkable because by the end of the Twentieth Century the place was in a terribly dilapidated state. Three cheers for English Heritage and the Lottery Fund, who between them raised the majority of the nine million pounds needed to restore the building which kicked off the neo-Gothic movement!
I cannot claim that I am enamoured with what Victorian Gothic became (think of the heavy, over-ornate architecture of the Houses of Parliament) but I have to say that its Georgian precursor of Strawberry Hill Gothic (as the style became known) is astonishingly delicate, vibrant – and fun!
The style is down to the vision and verve of Horace Walpole, who bought what was an eighty-year old villa near the banks of the River Thames, at Twickenham, in 1747. The previous owner was a well-known shopkeeper who sold toys and trinkets by the name of Mrs Chevenix, and Horace Walpole described his purchase as “a little plaything that I got out of Mrs Chevenix’s shop and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.” Over the next fifty years he transformed it into a Gothic fantasy – into what he whimsically described as “the castle I am building of my ancestors”.
Walpole used it as his summer residence. In those days it was half a day’s ride from the centre of London, eleven miles away. It was not in a particularly fashionable area, but Walpole created a wondrous creation to impress and amuse his friends – and to house his astonishing collection of books, paintings, furniture, coins and historical artifacts.
He could hardly have come from a better-connected family: his father Robert was the first British Prime Minister, and Robert had built his rather solid ancestral home in Palladian style at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Horace was the youngest son and he did what was expected of him: he went to Eton, then went up to Cambridge, failed to take his final examinations, and then set off on the Grand Tour for a couple of years. He returned in 1741 and immediately entered Parliament, but his main interest seems to have been the acquisition of paintings and artworks. Strawberry Hill was his chance to showcase the collection; he had some 4000 items including drawings by Holbein, paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Renaissance armour, and objets d’art. The architectural symmetry so favoured by contemporary architects disappeared out the window, to be replaced by crenellations, gothic window frames, Tudor turrets, Jacobean chimneys and details from his imagination. Horace Walpole never intended it to be built to last – he himself doubted if it would remain more than ten years after his lifetime. Why? Because it was jerry-built, a piece of froth, a sham. Where others used plasterwork Walpole used papier mache, but to what effect! The interiors were stunning, and it is thanks to a brilliant restoration programme that they have been put back to their former glory. In all there are 25 show rooms which have been meticulously restored on the ground and first floors. Most significantly, all the cement render has been hacked off and the exterior put back to its white stucco finery.
Horace Walpole was a remarkable man – an effete, an aesthete, a dilettante, a collector and an innovator. He died in 1797 at the age of eighty.
Of course it is a shame that none of the contents remain. In an act of cultural desecration the contents were sold off separately in 1843, although the V&A were able to track down nearly three hundred of these items in a major exhibition in 2010.
Outside, Walpole’s pride and joy was his lime tree grove, and this is now being replanted. As Walpole wrote in 1753 “it is an open grove through which you see a field which is bounded by a serpentine wood of all kind of trees and flowering shrubs and flowers”. Nothing much can be done about the fact that the fields have been replaced with modern housing, but hopefully the gardens will soon prove to be a magnificent setting for this extraordinary creation, one which triggered off the architectural movement which dominated the ensuing century.
Strawberry Hill house is at 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, TW1 4ST and is administered by the Strawberry Hill Trust. The house has been closed for the winter, with a re-opening date of 3rd March 2013. The trust website is here, and I am grateful to them for the use of all the images used in this post (apart from the John Giles Eccardt portrait of Horace Walpole from 1754, which is shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery).