London: Strawberry Hill House

DSC00688   DSC00679

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).

DSC00837   DSC00827

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.)

DSC00823_stitch   DSC00694

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  You’re given an abridged version of this guide today when you visit, and even though portions of it are no longer applicable thanks to George Waldegrave’s plundering, it is still a very nice touch indeed.

DSC00698   DSC00702

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.

DSC00709  DSC00722

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.

DSC00716   DSC00717 (2)

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.

DSC00719   DSC00728

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.

DSC00736    DSC00740

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?

DSC00730   DSC00731

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.

DSC00735   DSC00738

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.

DSC00726   DSC00724

DSC00743   DSC00749

DSC00745   DSC00751_stitch

DSC00753   DSC00754

DSC00758   DSC00759

DSC00760  DSC00765_stitch

DSC00772_stitch   DSC00785_stitch

DSC00787   DSC00789

DSC00795_stitch   DSC00807

DSC00814  DSC00815

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.

DSC00816   DSC00713

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).

DSC00819   DSC00821

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.

DSC00701  DSC00692

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.

DSC00828   DSC00707

London: Terror and Wonder + Witches and Wicked Bodies

IMAG0432   IMAG0435

So I went to two different exhibitions last week, and as they had related subject matter (which would have been nice to post about in the lead up to Halloween, but alas Terror and Wonder didn’t even start til November), I’m combining them into one post.  The first of these is the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibit in the Print Room of the British Museum, which is free, but they make you work for it – the Print Room is at the very top of the museum and you have to climb about a million sets of stairs to reach it (though I’m sure there’s probably lift access available). I haven’t always had the best luck with special exhibitions at the British Museum, even the ticketed ones…I went to one on erotic Japanese art last spring and it made me so angry that I never ended up blogging about it because what I had written was just one long irate rant (even angrier than my usual posts) and I felt that my rage at how stupidly, ridiculously overcrowded it was prevented me from having anything positive to say about the exhibition.  However, due to my continued unemployment, I was able to visit Witches and Wicked Bodies early on a Friday afternoon, and I think the time I went combined with the fact that the exhibit doesn’t seem to be that well-advertised and is out of the path of the casual museum visitor meant that there were only about twenty other people looking at it (which would be a lot for some smaller museums, but the exhibit was spread out over two huge rooms, so it still seemed pleasantly empty).

IMAG0419  IMAG0421

As the exhibit is in the “Print Room,” the focus is on prints and drawings of witches throughout history, starting with the early modern period (my crappy photographs of these prints are illustrating the entire post, even the parts about Terror and Wonder, because the British Library doesn’t allow photography).  The exhibit tracked the changing perceptions of witches over the centuries, from the 16th and 17th centuries, when being charged with witchcraft was a very serious matter indeed, especially once James I (VI of Scotland) became King of England, and could extend his persecution of witches over the whole of Great Britain; to the Victorian era, when witches were no longer portrayed as old hags and were shown instead as nubile young women.  There were at least fifty different prints here, including quite a few showing the witches of Macbeth, with detailed descriptions of each.  I love dark, weird old art like this and so I really enjoyed this exhibit.  They also had a small display tracing the evolution of Hogarth’s engravings in another corner of the gallery, so it was really a win-win.  In my opinion, this was that rare exhibit that was actually worth braving the hordes of tourists in Bloomsbury (also you don’t have to go through the Egyptian Gallery to get to the Print Room, which is a bonus!), and if you have an interest in witchcraft, I recommend popping into the British Museum to check this out before it finishes in January.  4/5.

IMAG0423   IMAG0425

And moving on to the British Library, where I headed directly after seeing Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see their special exhibit on the Gothic imagination.  Terror and Wonder costs a tenner, so it was a bit of a splurge for me, museum-wise, but it was on a subject that interests me so I just sucked it up and hoped it would be worth the money (unlike a literature class I took as an undergrad, also called the Gothic Imagination, that might have been ok if the professor hadn’t been a total creep).  Again, because I visited during off-hours, I just waltzed up to buy a ticket and walked right in, but it might be worth booking in advance on the weekends.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a temporary exhibit at the BL before, so I don’t know what the usual set-up is, but I feel like they really made an effort to get into the Gothic spirit, as all the walls were painted either black or blood red, and there was dim lighting and lots of gauzy black curtains hung about the place.

IMAG0427 (2)   IMAG0429

Since it was held at the British Library, after all, most of the focus was on literature, and the exhibit began with Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto, and the Gothic architecture of his Strawberry Hill House; moving on to the overblown fiction of Ann Radcliffe, which rather hilariously included a display of the seven “horrid novels” recommended to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.  The major Gothic monsters, Frankenstein’s creature and Dracula, each got an extensive section, as did real-life “monsters” like Jack the Ripper.  They were even projecting clips of a number of Gothic films on the walls: cue my staring at that dishy Colin Clive in The Bride of Frankenstein, and averting my eyes from the extreme creepiness of the final scenes of The Wicker Man.

IMAG0433   IMAG0434

They had many wonderful books and objects in this exhibition, but some of my favourites were a portable library owned by Sir Julius Caesar (who lived in the 16th century, was visited by Elizabeth I at his estate in Mitcham, and was utterly unconnected to the Roman of the same name) that was disguised as a giant book, containing about forty small volumes hidden inside; a broadside about one of the Whitechapel Murders, showing gruesome sketches of the victim that somehow also managed to be quite campy; a stage playset for Dracula designed by the brilliant Edward Gorey (I love John Bellairs’s Lewis Barnavelt series, especially the early editions that were illustrated by Gorey), and finally, one of the Were-Rabbit models used in the Wallace and Gromit film, which was adorable.  This exhibit was surprisingly big – when I read that it featured 200 objects, I thought, “That’s nothing, you could cram that in one room!” but everything was spread out and contained nicely informative captions, and every time I thought I was reaching the end, I’d turn a corner and find more stuff!

IMAG0437   IMAG0438

I was taken right through to modern horror films and fiction, which left me with some new books to check out, particularly some of the children’s literature (you can laugh, but I do still really love a lot of children’s fiction.  For example, I own a couple of Chris Priestley’s scary story books, and some of them honestly did freak me out.  That’s coming from an adult, albeit one with an overactive imagination who doesn’t like being left alone in a dark room at night, so make of that what you will).  It ended with a display of some photographs from Goth Weekend in Whitby, which was probably the weakest section of an otherwise strong exhibition.  I don’t often think things are worth their entry fee, but with Terror and Wonder, I think £10 was justified, because I left impressed, and feeling sufficiently entertained. The only caveat is that due to the set-up, wherein the exhibition space was divided into a number of smallish, oddly-shaped rooms (which admittedly added to the atmosphere), I could see it being unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  As it was, there were only a handful of people in most of the rooms with me, and there still tended to be small pile-ups around the more interesting objects as everyone crowded around at once.  So, if you can, try to visit during a weekday.  Anyway, it’s on until the end of January, and I’m actually blogging about it in good time for once, so if you’re a bit morbid like I am, I’d definitely advise that you go see it.  4.5/5, and a minimal amount of bitching from me.  How unusual!

IMAG0430   IMAG0436