Amazing Interiors: Strawberry Hill House

'I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence' said Horace Walpole of his Twickenham masterpiece of 'Gothic Revival'. Our search for the finest interiors in Britain continues with Strawberry Hill House...

by Nigel Andrew

Think ‘Gothic Revival’ and you naturally think Victorian – the houses of Parliament, St Pancras station, all those grand Northern town halls – but there was more than one Gothic revival. Indeed, you could say that the Gothic style, with its pointed arches, pinnacles, tracery and vaulting, never really went away. In church building, it long outlasted its best-before date, carrying on in places into the 17th century. As a style, it was picked up and played with by Baroque architects like Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh - and then, in the mid-18th century, along came Horace Walpole and his extraordinary Gothic creation, Strawberry Hill House.

Image: Chiswick Chap.

Horace Walpole was the son of the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and became famous as a collector, antiquarian, aesthete and writer; his The Castle of Otranto, a lurid melodrama, was the first Gothic novel. It started a literary fashion and has had an enduring impact on all things Gothic, including horror films, comics and graphic novels. In writing it, Walpole effectively created a new aesthetic – and that aesthetic was to find a less lurid, more playful expression in Strawberry Hill House. Walpole was delighted when he found the house that was to become Strawberry Hill, an outwardly unremarkable attached pair of small old houses in Twickenham, midway between two royal residences, Richmond Lodge and Hampton Court. This was a fine and fashionable situation, close by the river, but only Walpole could have spotted the Gothic potential in the building as it stood. Its higgledy-piggledy nature, its lack of symmetry, was precisely what appealed to Walpole. The irregularity of a building that seemed to have evolved organically over time was something he would build on to create his very own ‘historic’ house, his make-believe ‘ancestral seat’.

Portrait of Horace Walpole (1754) by John Giles Eccardt

Walpole set about the project with a will, aided by a ‘committee’ of like-minded friends and enthusiasts, their ultimate aim being to create a model Gothic house amid the classical villas that lined the Thames at that time. Walpole wanted to create a kind of theatrical experience, full of happy surprises (it was Walpole who coined the word ‘serendipity’), contrasts, dramatic light effects and unexpected twists and turns. He succeeded in creating one of the wonders of his age, a gloriously Gothic setting for his vast collection of paintings, books, antiquities, furniture and objets d’art. Sadly, like many another grand house, Strawberry Hill had a later history of decline, with the collections being sold off in one of the greatest auctions ever held in England, and the house eventually falling into institutional use, latterly as the home of a religious order. However, despite the losses and changes – and wartime bomb damage – enough of the house remained structurally intact for restoration to be a real possibility. The work, funded by the Strawberry Hill Trust, was undertaken, and in 2010 the house was reopened to the public, with 20 rooms restored, as nearly as possible, to what they had been at the time of Walpole’s death in 1797.

The Entrance Hall and Staircase, complete with 'lanthorne'. Image credit

Now sparkling white as it was in Walpole’s day, Strawberry Hill, with its crenelated walls, pinnacles, twisty chimneys and traceried windows, certainly looks the part of the Gothic house. Once inside and ticketed, you begin your tour in the space Walpole described as ‘the most particular and chief beauty of the Castle’ (he liked to think of his home as a castle). This is the entrance hall, and it perfectly embodies Walpole’s ruling idea of ‘gloomth’, the mysterious and romantic gloom essential to creating a Gothic atmosphere. The hall, which rises through three storeys, is lit by a replica of the large coloured-glass ‘lanthorn’ made by Walpole’s friend Richard Bentley specifically for this location. The walls are lined with stone-coloured trompe l’oeil tracery of a design copied from a medieval royal tomb, and narrow windows of stained glass (some of it modern) admit a suitably dim, religious light. In the upper reaches of the stairwell, the glow of old paintings and the faint gleam of armour can be made out.

Staircase detail. Image: Strawberry Hill House

From the hall rises a grand Gothic staircase, also designed by Richard Bentley, and inspired by the library staircase at Rouen cathedral. This habit of copying or adapting medieval designs - usually from prints and drawings, rather than the real thing, and often overlooking original function and context – creates a superficial, purely decorative kind of Gothic that was frowned on by the earnest Victorian revivalists. They also objected to Walpole’s use of inappropriate materials – wood, papier-mâché, plaster or even wallpaper to imitate stone – but Strawberry Hill Gothic is essentially playful and ornamental, a style rather than a moral statement. It is fun. The first large room of Walpole’s extension to the original house is the Great Parlour, a grand, rather bare space with a flamboyant Gothic chimney-piece and a three-bay Gothic window at one end. The startlingly modern-looking fabric on the settees is in fact a faithful copy of the 18th-century original.

The Great Parlour. Image credit

The bareness of this room – which used to be lined with portraits, including a superb Reynolds of The Ladies Waldegrave - and of most of the others to come, points to the problem with the restored Strawberry Hill House. The restoration has been beautifully done, but the house has lost so much of its contents that it can seem little more than a succession of spaces – amazing spaces, but crying out to be filled. Little of the original contents of the house has found its way back home – much of it is in important national collections and much is scattered around private collections in this country and abroad. There are reproductions of some of the paintings, and replicas and appropriate substitutes for some furnishings – but the opulence of Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is lost. However, like all grand restorations, this one is a work in progress; perhaps in a few years’ time the house will feel more furnished...

The library as depicted by John Carter Delt in 1784

At least the Library is lined with books – not Walpole’s famous book collection, but appropriate material for an 18th-century gentleman’s library– and it’s a fabulous room, the first Gothic-style library in England.

The Library. Image credit

The book-cases that line the room are pierced Gothic arches, based on illustrations of the choir of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the painted and gilded ceiling, designed by Walpole, continues the theme of the Crusades suggested by the armour on display in the stairwell. Walpole was proud of his Crusader ancestors, and the Saracen’s head motif from the family arms can be seen many times inside and outside the house.

The Holbein Chamber. Image credit

The Holbein Chamber, the first of the rooms intended for entertainment and display, is so-called because it was used to display Walpole’s collection of portraits from the court of Henry VIII, traced by George Vertue from the Holbein originals. The chief glories of the room are the Gothic screen, inspired (like the grand staircase) by an original in Rouen cathedral, and the splendid chimneypiece, the design of which is taken from an Archbishop’s tomb at Canterbury. The ceiling, of papier-mâché, was copied from that of the Queen’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle.

The Gallery. Image: Gary Ullah

The most stunning and sumptuous of Strawberry Hill’s interiors is the Gallery, built to house Walpole’s most prized paintings and show them off to best advantage. The fantastically elaborate gilded vaulting of the ceiling is based on the famous fan vaulting in the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey (and, once again, it’s done in papier-mâché ). The gorgeous canopies above the gilded recesses that line the wall opposite the windows are based on another Archbishop’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

Gallery. Image: Strawberry Hill House

All this gilding, set off against rich crimson walls, gives a luxurious effect that is very far from monastic. ‘I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence,’ wrote Walpole; ‘Strawberry is growing sumptuous in its latter day; it will scarce be any longer like the fruit of its name, or the modesty of its ancient demeanour.’ Indeed – but what a spectacle it is!

Gallery detail. Image: Strawberry Hill House

A smaller, but equally magnificent room – the Tribune – was also created to show off Walpole’s treasures. Named after the Tribune of the Uffizi Palace in Florence – but inspired by the Chapter House of York Minster – this vaulted room housed Walpole’s great collections of coins and medals, miniatures and enamels (collections long ago dispersed).

The Tribune Image: Strawberry Hill House

The Tribune Image: Strawberry Hill House

The last of the grand interiors are the Round Room – with a ceiling based on the rose window in Old St Paul’s, and a fine stained-glass window which, on sunny afternoons, throws a multi-coloured light across the floor – and the Great North Bedchamber, which was begun ten years after the Gallery and houses yet another chimneypiece based on a Bishop’s tomb, this time carved from real Portland stone.

The Round Room. Image: Strawberry Hill House

So ends the tour of this extraordinary survival – a house that created a new style and perfectly expressed the taste and interests of its creator. With so much of its contents gone, it is no longer the prodigious treasure-house it was, but those spectacular interiors, immaculately restored, speak for themselves. And the language they speak is Gothic – Strawberry Hill Gothic. Plan your visit to Strawberry Hill House here.