Saturday 21 June 2014


Strawberry Hill, the Twickenham retreat of Horace Walpole.

"Heaven nor hell shall impede my designs," said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather ... uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast. ... Manfred ... saw it quit its panel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air. “   Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764.)

Challenging heaven and hell, preparing for damnation, seizing innocent young girls, receiving messages from the grave, levitating paintings and a mood of melancholy. In this short passage Horace Walpole encapsulates all that we have come to understand as, Gothic Horror. Otranto, is regarded as being the first Gothic novel and a book that influenced the writing of Gothic novelists such Ann Radcliffe who wrote and published The Mysteries of Udolpho  (1794). Ann Radcliffe in turn was an influence on Jane Austen who wrote Northanger Abbey. Austen of course makes fun of the genre but she includes all the Gothic horror elements that Horace Walpole promoted in Otranto. The concept of all things Gothic is encapsulated in Horace Walpole’s building, Strawberry Hill that consists of light and dark, mystery and intrigue and all shades between.

Horace Walpole (1717- 1797) the 4th Earl of Orford was the seventh son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Britain who first came into power under George Ist. Robert was a Whig politician who believed that parliament should hold the power and also wanted  a limited extension of the franchise. He also believed in the promotion of talent over birth. In a way the Whigs were the forerunners of the Liberal party. Although he was never called a Prime Minister, Robert Walpole effectively became the prime minister when he was given the posts of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

He dominated British politics for nearly thirty years. He was embroiled in political intrigue and accused of bribery and corruption. His own party, The Whigs, managed to get him to resign in 1742. He became The first Earl of Orford. Before leaving office Walpole managed to acquire various incomes for his offspring including some lucrative sinecure posts for his youngest son Horace, who therefore throughout his life never needed to work and earn money because of these lucrative endowments. Horace was the Comptroller of the Pipe and Clerk of the Estreats ( that was a job with the exchequer, ostensibly handing out money to government departments). In his twentieth year he became the Usher of The Exchequer. He also had a share in the collecting of customs. Altogether his income was nearly £3000 per year. He had to do absolutely nothing to obtain this income and he was provided with it for life. Horace Walpole was therefore able to pursue all his interests, including going into politics as the Member of Parliament for Kings Lynn, which had been in his family through his father’s connections. It was a was termed a, ”rotten borough.” A rotten borough was a borough in control of a local politician or member of the gentry. It had few and in the case of, Old Sarum as an example in Wiltshire, virtually no voters. The Member of Parliament for a rotten borough was not elected, the seat was given to them to gain influence. Horace Walpole was never at the centre of government but he knew all the powerful people. He was able to give a good account, in his letters to friends, of the political intrigues of the time. He especially was very good at describing the great and good detailing their personalities, habits and eccentricities. Things history does not often record.

Horace Walpole was an historian, collector, social commentator and a writer. His fascination with history led him to collect Renaissance Maiolica.  Maiolica, was a refined, white-glazed pottery of the Italian Renaissance and was adapted to all objects that were traditionally ceramic such as dishes, bowls, serving vessels, and jugs of all shapes and sizes. It was also used as a medium for sculpture and sculptural reliefs, as well as floor and ceiling tiles. The latter were rectangular, laid side by side across specially adapted joists. Maiolica is distinguished by its white, opaque glaze, due to the presence of tin-oxide, a powdery white ash. Walpole also collected Holbein drawings,  works by contemporary 18th century artists such as Joshua Reynolds. and he also had an interest in arms and armour

Over a period of forty years (1747 – 1790) Walpole turned a 17th century house in Twickenham into a Gothic masterpiece. It was named Strawberry Hill. In Walpole’s life it became a famous tourist attraction. Walpole designed the house, the interiors and the gardens himself with the help of friends such as Richard Bentley and John Adam, the architect.

Horace Walpole was also a novelist but more importantly he was a letter writer and it is his letters that give so much information about people, events and places. He was an insatiable recorder of his times. His letters covered, politics, antiquarianism, literature and the social life of the time. He had a close group of correspondents. Each received letters covering a different theme. Walpole’s old school fellow, George Montagu received letters about social anecdotes. Sir Horace Mann, Britain’s representative in Florence, received letters about politics. The letters are, alongside Strawberry Hill House, his most important legacy. His letters are renowned for detailed opinionated descriptions of places and people. He caused controversy amongst his close correspondents because of his often unflattering and all too realistic descriptions of famous and important people. He showed their inadequacies and unsavoury habits as well as recalling their talents and achievements.

Horace Walpole

Here is a description of Versailles in a letter to his friend Richard West, dated Paris, 1739. Horace Walpole was touring Europe with his school friend from Eton days, Thomas Grey, the poet.
“They say, we did not see it to advantage, that we ran through the apartments, saw the garden en passant, and slubbered over Trianon. I say, we saw nothing. However, we had time to see that the great front is a lumber of littleness, composed of black brick, stuck full of bad old busts, and fringed with gold rails. The rooms are all small, except the great gallery, which is noble, but totally wainscoted with looking-glass. The garden is littered with statues and fountains, each of which has its tutelary deity. In particular, the elementary god of fire solaces himself in one. In another, Enceladus, in lieu of a mountain, is overwhelmed with many waters. There are avenues of water-pots, who disport themselves much in squirting up cascadelins. In short, 'tis a garden for a great child. Such was Louis Quatorze, who is here seen in his proper colours, where he commanded in person, unassisted by his armies and his generals, left to the pursuit of his own puerile ideas of glory.”
This is not only a deprecating description of Versailles but also a character analysis of Louis XIV (le Roi Soleil) in not too flattering terms.
Walpole’s style is personal and conversational. You get a strong sense of his interest, humour and enthusiasm; his feelings and thoughts are expressed vivdly in his letter writing. His personality comes to the fore.

The Letters of Horace Walpole.

Horace Walpole’s grand Gothic creation, Strawberry Hill House at Twickenham, could be said to encapsulate in brick and stone its creator’s personality. I had the privilege of walking around the rooms of Strawberry Hill House recently and so in the spirit of Horace Walpole here is my description of that visit.

Strawberry Hill

“Marilyn and I drove Emily to work. She has just completed her degree in International Business Studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University and has been taken on at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s house, in the role of an internship. We arrived early on Sunday morning, the skies cloudless and blue. As we swept into the car park to the left of the house through the heavy oak framed gates with their deep dark red painted delicate filigree work in iron, depicting leaves and branches, the bright white walls of the castellated, turreted,  and perpendicular Gothic extravagances met our gaze. It was breath-taking; awe inspiring. The glowing bright whiteness of the walls dazzled. Our imaginations soared. An air of fantasy, mystery, and whispers of a dark medieval, spiritual past pervades the whole. We entered the house on the ground floor at the back through archways reminiscent of an abbey’s cloistered arches and alcoves overlooking wide and distant stretching lawns. 

Gloomy and mysterious corridors and landings.

Emily lead us in single file through dim and narrow corridors up a steep and winding staircase that lead to a small landing with gothic arched doors leading to rooms. The shape of this small lobby with its asymmetry, sharp corners, niches and doors set at angles, disorientated, created a sense of mystery and even unease. The creator of a place like this must have enjoyed mysteries, playing with the subconscious and plumbing the darker depths of our personality, creating wonder and unease in equal measures.

Blue plaque

The first room we entered, emerging from this gloomy, moody, confined chamber was, The Gallery. If Walpole , with his dim , dark, mysterious corridors wanted to suppress all expectations and put us in a gloomy state of mind  before revealing something fantastic and overwhelming, he couldn’t have been more  successful. Entering, The Gallery, we emerged into light and space  canopied by a three dimensional ceiling of intricate shimmering golden webs. The ceiling is fan vaulted like the roof of Kings College Cambridge Chapel, the fantastic roof of Bath Abbey and the vaulted roofs of many chapter houses in medieval cathedrals across Britain. The gold is so bright, so shiny, so intricate, it astounds and lifts the spirits from the depths of gloom with such a rush we actually gasped. It is a long gallery and has three deep set alcoves interspersed evenly along its length. The centre alcove is also a fireplace. Each alcove is comprised of a canopy consisting of an intricate web of gold echoing the ceiling of the room. The alcoves also comprise mirrors and brightly painted portraits of Walpole’s family and friends. The ceiling is created with papier mache and the walls are hung with a rich crimson Norwich damask. The combination of the bright shimmering golden ceiling, the golden alcoves and the deep bright red wall covering creates a rich and emotional experience. The red almost creates its own warmth. Red is blood, anger, rage. Gold is wealth, power, a heavenly thing. All these overt messages were coming at us with such power and force.  We felt as though we were inside a Gothic dream and indeed we were.

The Long Gallery

From The Long gallery we walked from one breath-taking room to the next. Each room pulsated with a sense of differing emotions. The Tribune, was very special to Horace Walpole. It was the room where he kept his most precious objet d’art. He only allowed his closest friends to enter here. It is now empty of all Walpole’s artefacts but the decoration has been replaced and renovated.  A wide curved window recess in front of us as we entered immediately gives one the feeling that the room is round. Equally  curved recesses to the right and left of this small room add to its round effect. However these recesses, although dominating the shape of the room are the sides of a square.  It has a roof reminiscent of the domed octagonal shape of a cathedral chapter house. I am thinking of the chapter house at Salisbury Cathedral in particular.. At the apex of the domed ceiling is a glass flower shaped window, a sky light, with sixteen equal edges to its form. A hexadecagon flower.

The Tribune

Another room called, The Round Room,  is carpeted in crimson and  also has the crimson Norwich damask wallpaper on its walls. It has a magnificent scagliola fireplace consisting of a creamy stone overlaid with green, brown and red branch and leaf motifs. The point that draws your eye in this room though is the window. It is set in a curved bay and has medieval motifs in stone and glass throughout it. Medieval kings look out from their glass badges. Coats of arms in stained glass are set between intricate and slender stone mullions.

Other rooms that we visited briefly included, The Library, which once again is full of medieval religious motifs. We visited The Great North bedchamber and the Holbein Chamber too.

 Horace Walpole allowed people to visit his house and issued tickets on application to that effect. The visitor in Walpole’s time entered by the front door. This is an unusual entrance. Marilyn and I explored this entrance too. The front door is an oak iron studded medieval facsimile above which a perpendicular arched window, leaded, with stained glass, surmounts the entrance.It is set in a white painted, stone, crenellated arch. High stone walls to the left and right of this entrance create a narrow high walled tunnelled effect that gives the sense that these walls are there to protect the house behind them, much as a castle’s outer walls protected the inner keep of the castle. 

The front door.

To the right, a narrow, pathway,  leads to, “the monastery garden,” set behind a delicately arched frieze. A small stone cell reminiscent of a monk’s cell or even a castle prison cell acts as a sort of sentry box before you reach the main door. A statue of a tonsured monk is placed on a pedestal inside this small stone room.  The first surprise for a visitor as they enter the house is the entrance hall with subdued lighting. The walls look like medieval wood panelling but this is a wallpaper designed to give a three dimensional effect and look like carved oak. A grand staircase twists up to the floors above with a large metal stained glass lantern hanging from the top of the high stair well. It has red, yellow and blue glass in it and the three lions of England emblazoned in gold on one of its facets. We sombrely walked up this medieval extravagance of a staircase and saw how our tour should have started if Horace himself was our guide.

The staircase.

The last  word about our tour of his house should be provided by Horace Walpole himself.
At the door, before you enter, is a wooden lectern with Horace Walpoles instructions displayed. They read....." Mr Walpole is very ready to oblige........"

                                                             Horace Walpole instructs.   

And of course , here is your ticket.

A room in Strawberry Hill.


Strawberry Hill was built in stages between the late 1740s to the 1790s. It was used for private entertainment and as a private retreat. The first phase of Strawberry Hill consisted of stone coloured Gothic interiors with stained glass in the windows. The library, built in 1754, encapsulated many Gothic principles. It was the centre of Walpole's ideas and the centre of Walpole's antiquarian and scholarly endeavours. John Chute, who lived at The Vyne, in Hampshire, designed the bookcases based on a door in Old St Paul's Cathedral. The chimney piece drew ideas from tombs in Westminster Abbey. The rooms in the State Apartment provided large formal spaces for entertaining. There were sufficient medieval influences but the overall decoration reflected modern state rooms in the classical style.

For Walpole, physical objects were, " doorways," to the past. Walpoles collection of ceramics was the largest and most varied in England. It ranged from Greek pots, Renaissance majolica, and modern porcelain. Walpole believed that his collection of enamels and miniatures was the, " largest and finest in any country." By 1797 he owned about 130 miniatures, painted in watercolour on vellum or ivory, and nearly forty enamels.

The monastery garden.

From the 1770s, Strawberry Hill became famous for 'Works of Genius … by Persons of Rank and Gentlemen not artists', including amongst them the painter and designer Lady Diana Beauclerk and the sculptor Anne Damer.

Horace Walpole's ,”Anecdotes of Painting in England, “published by the Strawberry Hill Press between 1762 and 1780, was the first history of English art. The Anecdotes included sections on sculptors, architects and engravers, and an 'Essay on Modern Gardening'.

Emily, with Marilyn in the background as we toured Strawberry Hill.

Horace Walpole died in 1797. He left Strawberry Hill to Anne Damer, a sculptress who was his cousin’s daughter. In 1811 it passed to his great niece Elizabeth Waldegrave. In 1839 her grandson John inherited the house . He married Frances Braham, the daughter of a famous opera singer. He, however died within a year of the marriage. Frances then married John’s brother, the seventh Earl Waldegrave. He was sent to prison by the Twickenham magistrate’s bench for riotous behaviour. When he was released he felt so annoyed with Twickenham that he decided to sell Walpoles collection in what was termed The Great Sale. He then let Strawberry Hill rot and decay. The Earl died in 1846. Frances married twice more. During her third marriage to Granville Harcourt she expanded Strawberry Hill. She enlarged the hall, added a new floor. She created the horse shoe entrance at the front of the house and pushed the main road back away from the house. She added a drawing room, dining room, billiard room and further accommodation for guests. She raised the tower and added Tudor style chimney pots in the style of Hampton Court. 



1 comment:

  1. Tony, that's quite a place. I'd enjoy touring it, though Gothic architecture is not my thing. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I prefer Georgian. Love the photo of Emily and Marilyn - a posed and a candid shot all in one.