I’ve been wanting to visit Strawberry Hill House since seeing it profiled in the Gothic Imagination exhibit at the BL last fall, but as it was closed all winter, I’ve had to bide my time (admittedly not that much of a hardship, since I dislike venturing outside at the best of times, but especially in the cold (and the heat)). But the proof of my eagerness to investigate Strawberry Hill can be seen in the date of my visit: the 1st of March, the very day that the house finally reopened to the public (especially impressive when you consider that I usually procrastinate and don’t make it to things until the week before they close).
Strawberry Hill was built by Horace Walpole (son of Robert, the first Prime Minister) over a period of many years, roughly 1748-1790, as his summer villa, and is a prime (and wonderful) example of Gothic Revival architecture (there was a house already standing on the property when he bought it, but Walpole added on and completely transformed the building). Horace Walpole is primarily known as the author of The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, and as a man of letters, but old Horace also really seemed like a man after my own heart. Not only did he build this amazing house, but he filled it with a splendid collection of curiosities that included things like Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, John Dee’s spirit summoning mirror, and Charles I’s death warrant, which has sadly since been dispersed thanks to his real piece of
shit work distant relation George Waldegrave, who inherited and promptly sold off the collection to pay his personal debts (Waldegrave being a drunkard and spendthrift, and probably other unpleasant things as well). (Seriously, have you ever wanted to go back in time and just punch somebody in the face? That’s what I want to do to this George Waldegrave character.)
Because I suppose there’s not much point having a collection of awesome things if no one is around to appreciate them (at least in a pre-internet age before you could just brag about them on Facebook or Instagram), Walpole allowed visitors into his home, and even wrote and published a guide for them, on his in-house printing press. You’re given an abridged version of this guide today when you visit, and even though portions of it are no longer applicable thanks to George Waldegrave’s plundering, it is still a very nice touch indeed.
But enough background, let’s get down to the house. Strawberry Hill House is located in Twickenham, where all the cool Georgians lived (that’s what it seems like anyway, Alexander Pope’s house was just a few streets away, though he was dead by the time Walpole moved in), and stands incongruously fabulous at the end of a normal, boring residential street. Entrance to the house is by self-guided tour, but they let in a rather limited amount of people for each time slot (I think only about 20, which is nice. Nothing worse than trying to walk around a crowded house, especially when you’re as misanthropic as I am), so you may want to book ahead on their website before you visit, especially since there’s no booking fee. And, that National Trust membership has paid off already, because National Trust members get half off the admission price (normal admission is £10.80), which definitely makes it worth visiting.
After a short introduction, we were let loose in the house, booklets in hand, to explore using Walpole’s own directions. The only problem with this was that the instructions issued by the room stewards were rather confusing; they told us to head all the way up the staircase before we entered a room, so we mistakenly took that to mean we should go all the way up to the third floor, when in fact they meant to go into a room on the first floor, then go up, and then come back down to see the public rooms. Basically, we were kind of lost and confused for the first few rooms because the information in the booklet didn’t seem to match up with the interiors, but we figured it out eventually. Clear signage saying what each room is would help with this immensely, and if done tastefully, shouldn’t detract from the atmosphere of the house. This is only a minor quibble though, because the house was amazing.
I loved everything, from the fireplaces to the stained glass windows (particularly one that Walpole himself described as “ridiculous”); he seemed to have a bit of an obsession with the Stuarts, as Charles I and II appeared in many of the windows, something I can definitely appreciate.
And the man seemed to love really deep beautiful colours, especially blues, which is my own favourite colour (as I said, he was a man after my own heart), so yeah, it was magnificent. Not everything in the rooms is original (again, thanks to Ass-wipe Magee, as I shall henceforth refer to George Waldegrave, who in addition to selling off Walpole’s collection, also left the interior in a sorry state), but they’ve been doing their best to reproduce and recover what they can, one example being the beautiful hand-stencilled Gothic arch wallpaper in the entrance hall.
Rather like his American near-contemporary Thomas Jefferson, Walpole was a tinkerer and inventor, and came up with a number of neat innovations for his house, among them shutters that slid fully back into the wall when not in use, and the bookcases shown above, that swung open at the touch of a finger for easy access to all those books, because what’s the use of having a fabulous library full of them if you never actually read them?
The house is a mix of public and private rooms, the private rooms having just reopened this year for the first time in centuries, which is pretty neat. The public rooms were obviously far grander, with hand-flocked wallpaper, high ceilings, and interesting room shapes (octagons, hexagons, and round, amongst others), but it was nice being able to see all of them, especially as there was some nice painted glass in his private rooms.
I feel like I’ve reached the point where I’ve prattled on all I can for the minute, so I’ll just leave you with some more pictures of the interior to enjoy (with me standing awkwardly in the middle of many of them) for a minute or two before I wrap up.
The only really depressing part of this whole exercise was reading Walpole’s descriptions of things that should have been in the rooms, before Ass-wipe Magee ruined that for everyone, but I think I need to stop dwelling on that and focus on the house that remains, which is still brilliant. I would live in the place in a heartbeat (assuming you could get modern heating in there), even at the risk of dreaming the strange Gothic dreams that Walpole was himself prone to (who knows, I could get inspired to write a novel just like Walpole was). When we finished with the house, there was still a small museum to see downstairs.
The most enlightening bits of that were learning that Walpole really hated Henry VII, which I found strangely hilarious for some reason (maybe because I take against historical figures with the same vehemence (as can be seen throughout this post)), and seeing how different he looked from his father. Robert Walpole was this portly, florid man with a cocksure pose, whilst Horace was slim and bookish, and well, looked like the kind of person who would be into everything Gothic (not really an insult, as I tend to have a thing for thin, pasty men).
We finished off with a peek at some medieval alabasters, and a random peacock paper mache creation (presumably created by children and not the university students who made a lot of the replicas of the original furniture in the house, since their work was generally excellent). There are also a couple gardens surrounding the house, though nothing much was in bloom so early in the year save for herbs and snowdrops. I’ve just now realised (reading the last couple pages of the guide, which I neglected to do when I was there), that Walpole’s personal chapel is still around, and you can see it if you walk back through the “woodland walk;” although it’s not normally open, you can at least check out the exterior.
I didn’t have strong feelings towards Horace Walpole either way when I began my visit, but I came out of the tour with a real affection for Walpole, his vision, and his house. Although there were a few minor problems with unfriendly staff (most of them were lovely, but there’s always one or two bad apples) and being confused by the lack of signage, I think Walpole’s own guide (plus the supplementary materials provided in the rooms) is really sufficient to appreciate the house as Walpole would have wanted his visitors to. I certainly hope they can recover more of Walpole’s lost collection with time, but even without it, the house is definitely a must-see for anyone with an interest in architecture, the Gothic, or history. Smashing place. 4/5.