I recently visited Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), now restored to its original Gothic splendour at a cost of nine million pounds. It really is the most astonishing building which both ravishes and startles the eye.
Readers will remember that in Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, Horace Walpole is the god-father of the heroine, Horatia Winwood, though Horatia herself is not particularly keen to visit Strawberry Hill in case she’s expected to ‘fondle his horrid little dog, Rosette, who was odiously spoilt, and yapped at one’s heels.’ Personally, I found the place enchanting.
Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle ofOtranto, in 1765. It was an immediate success and has been in print ever since. Walpole himself said of it, ‘I gave rein to my imagination; visions and passion choked me.’ The story opens with a huge, black-plumed helmet crashing down and killing Conrad, son of the tyrant, Manfred of Otranto, on his wedding day. Not unnaturally, the bride, Isabella, is terrified and attempts a mid-night escape through a gloomy vault. The story is full of ghosts, a statue which pours blood, prophecies, torments and a spooky forest cave. All splendid stuff and Walpole’s imagination didn’t stop there.
Back in 1749, he’d bought Chopp’d Straw Hall in Twickenham, a higgledy-piggledy, ‘gingerbread’ house whose quirkiness he wanted to retain. Palladian symmetry did not interest him; what he wanted was mystery and surprise. He set about creating a Gothic building, full of irregularities and filled with ‘gloomth’, a word he coined for the Otranto-like effect he sought.
He took inspiration from a variety of places. The staircase going up from the hall is based on the library staircase in Rouen Cathedral, for example; the pierced Gothic arches in the library echo the side door of the choir in old St Paul’s; a chimney-piece is inspired by an archbishop’s tomb in Canterbury cathedral. The house manages to be both over the top and elegant in a slightly decadent way. I loved it.
The pièce de résistance, however, has to be the gallery with its crimson damask walls and splendid ceiling, a miracle of papier-maché fan vaulting in white with gold leaf which almost blinds the eye. Everything has been specially designed to add to the room’s ambience. I just loved the door knobs, for example, in brass with enamel inlay.
If you want to be inspired and refreshed (they have an excellent tea- room, too!), look no further. Strawberry Hill is the place for you. www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk
Photos by the author. Top: Strawberry Hill outside. Centre: the gallery. Bottom: door knob and keyhole plate