Horace Walpole (1717-97) didn’t expect his house at Strawberry Hill to last much longer than he did: he built in plaster and papier-mâché and decorated his “little plaything-house” with wallpaper.
The house that gave its name to a style, “Strawberry Hill Gothic”, was for amusement only, so small that one of his visitors, Lady Townsend, declared, “Lord God! Jesus! What a house! It is just such a house as the parson’s where the children lie at the end of the bed.”
As a reaction to the stern mansion at Houghton in Norfolk built by his father, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, and indeed to his own town house off Piccadilly, Walpole extended Strawberry Hill between 1749 and 1776 asymmetrically, as if built over centuries, because he was “fond of the Sharawaggi, or Chinese want of symmetry”.
He commissioned a group of friends as his “committee of taste” – among them John Chute (1701-1776) and Richard Bentley (1708-1782) – to advise on designs based on medieval originals. This is why the chimneypiece in the library imitates John of Eltham’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, and that in the Holbein Chamber is based on Archbishop Warham’s tomb at Canterbury, while the gallery ceiling is derived from the side aisles of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey.
The house was a cabinet of curiosities, a Schatzkammer, filled with every kind of object from Cardinal Wolsey’s red hat to the gilded armour of the French King Francis I, James I’s gloves to a lock of Edward IV’s hair “cut from his corpse in St George’s Chapel at Windsor”. Stripped of Walpole’s collections in a sale of 1842, its rooms currently stand virtually empty. Yet they have the unmistakable feeling of what Walpole called “gloomth”, which inspired his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1765), an important milestone on the road which leads to Frankenstein, Dracula and Hogwarts.
For a building that was outrageously against the prevalent architectural fashion, it was the object of insatiable curiosity. Walpole was so pressured by visitors that he issued timed tickets. “Never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court,” he wrote to a friend. “Everyone will live in it but you.” He declared that he should marry his housekeeper, because her gratuities were such that she had more money than he did.
Strawberry Hill, for many years the core of a Catholic teacher-training college, is now – at a cost of £9 million – as bright and crisp as Horace Walpole would have remembered it.
Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, is open to the public by timed ticket: see http://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/visit.php. The café, called The Committee of Taste, is superlative: I couldn’t bring myself to eat the cheesecake until I’d photographed it:
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.