Horace Walpole was a gifted author and man of letters, yet his most fanciful creation was his second home in London. Nancy Alsop visits Strawberry Hill House
Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, was a man whose extraordinary dreams found expression both on the page and in his extraordinary home. “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he isn’t,” he once wrote. “A sense of humour was provided to console him for what he is.” By his own logic, then, his richness of imagination must have compensated for a near-total absence of character. His letters, which number some 7,000 and chronicle the Georgian era with more colour than any of other correspondent of that period, beg to differ.
A writer, art historian, modish man-about-town, Whig politician and collector, Walpole’s most celebrated literary creation was The Castle of Otranto, his gothic 1764 novel based on a nightmare he once had at his Strawberry Hill House. It is said to be the first English language example of a horror story and responsible for spawning a whole literary genre that would take in the likes of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and George du Maurier.
Trailblazing firsts seem to echo down the generations of the Walpole family. Horace was the youngest son of Britain’s inaugural Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. It was, perhaps then, natural that Horace should enter politics, becoming MP for two “rotten boroughs”: Callington in Cornwall, a place he never visited, and Castle Rising in Norfolk. In 1757, following the death of his uncle Horatio, Walpole became MP for King’s Lynn for the next 11 years and it was during this time that he penned The Castle of Otranto, a novel he claimed was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern.”
Yet it is as the creative mastermind of Strawberry Hill, his second home in the then-fashionable London suburb of Twickenham, that Walpole is best remembered. This was a bricks-and-mortar extension of his obsession with the medieval gothic and the second home aspect is important. Walpole had a classical residence in town, allowing Strawberry Hill to become his plaything to which none of the usual rules applied.
Strawberry Hill was originally a modest William-and-Mary house, a name given to a decorative style of architecture during the Protestant couple’s joint reign from 1689 to 1702. Its size, though vast to modern sensibilities, was considered trifling, allowing him to extend and play out his every fantasy.
He wrote: “As my castle is so diminutive, I give myself a Burlington air and say that as Chiswick is a model of Grecian architecture, Strawberry Hill is to be so of Gothic.” (The Burlington to whom he referred was Lord Burlington, the architect who pioneered the Neo-Palladian style with Chiswick House.) The house didn’t stay “small” for long; Walpole soon doubled its size, adding towers, turrets and battlements. He decorated the interiors with grand fireplaces, gilded ceilings and biblical scenes.
Strawberry Hill was, and remains, a fantasy. A man possessed of great self-knowledge, Walpole pinpointed the moment his love affair with all things gothic began: with his first sight of King’s College, Cambridge, during his time an undergraduate there. “Art and Palladio had not reached the land nor methodised the Vandal builder’s hand,” he marvelled. And indeed, for anyone who has ever set foot inside an Oxbridge college, it stands to reason that Walpole’s mock-castle confection should feature a faux baronial hall, complete with coats of arms and images of supposed ancestors dating back to the crusaders. While Walpole was not without a distinguished lineage, claiming, through his mother, to descend from the early Welsh king, Cadwallader, the idea triggered a particular interest in relics and curios beyond those of his own family. Strawberry Hill became a repository, and Walpole collected assiduously, from James I’s gloves to Cardinal Wolseley’s hat. Oliver Cromwell’s nightcap, alas, remained ever a stranger to Strawberry Hill, after Walpole was outbid for it.
But for everything that did make it into this suburban Georgian gothic medieval fantasy, there is a handy guide in the form of Walpole’s A Description of the Villa, published in 1774, and printed at Strawberry Hill’s own printing press. It is an invaluable document, not least because only some of his enormous collection survives following a 32-day sale of much of the contents in 1842.
After an £8.9-million renovation a decade ago, visitors today can still rejoice in Walpole’s unparalleled home, which set the stage for the Victorian gothic revival, much as the tourists in his own lifetime did. Indeed, he opened it up as a ticketed attraction from May until October, groaning that, “Two companies have been to see my house last week and one of the parties, as vulgar people always see with the ends of their fingers, had broken the end of my invaluable eagle’s bill, and to conceal their mischief, had pocketed the piece.”
Any ideally not light-fingered visitor who makes the pilgrimage to Walpole’s castellated palace today, with its gleaming white stucco, will note the inspiration from earlier gothic designs that Walpole had visited on his Grand Tour of France and Italy, a standard rite of passage for wealthy young British men of the time. The careful construction of dark passages opening up into bright, gilded rooms adds to the drama in a similar fashion to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So, while Walpole was the virtuoso connoisseur behind it all, the ever-unfolding vision was far from his alone. Quite aside from the architects, he also called upon his self-appointed “Committee of Taste”, consisting of every man of discernment and sophistication he knew: from scholars to squires, including John Chute, the man behind The Vyne in Hampshire, a vast country pile now run by the National Trust.
Together Walpole and his committee hit upon flourishes that are as extraordinary now as they were then. Richard Bentley, a writer, designer and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, designed a staircase hall made loosely in the image of Prince Arthur’s tomb. The library’s gothic bookcases owe much to a pair of side doors at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
The Holbein Chamber was a bedchamber created in recognition of Walpole’s fascination with Tudor history and art. It not only houses his collection of copies of the titular artist’s drawings (the originals being at Kensington Palace), but is architecturally fascinating. There is a carved wooden screen, based upon the choir doors of a church in Rouen, a chimney that references a tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, and a domed ceiling inspired by the Queen’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle. Despite being such a typically eclectic showpiece, Walpole never slept in the Holbein Chamber, although he was said to sometimes take his tea here.
While plundering the medieval, Walpole remained self-aware at all times, writing: “Visions you know have always been my pasture… Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one.” Scrupulously honest, he admitted, “In truth I do not mean to make my house so gothic as to exclude convenience and modern refinements in luxury.” Walpole’s Grand Tour proved of lasting importance through his life for another reason. For it was during this time that he met the Florentine expat and British diplomat Thomas Mann, with whom he started his most prolific and important correspondence. They maintained contact for 45 years, although the two were never to meet again. His letters – both to Mann and others – amount to a vital historical document, not least because, in consciously cultivating the art of letter writing, Walpole kept one eye firmly on posterity, detailing the history, manners, and taste of his age.
To delve into Georgian culture, one must only look to his 48 volumes of letters for gossipy takes on all the news and leading figures in society, often delivered from the sidelines of fashionable parties. Not only did Walpole leave his indelible mark on Strawberry Hill and gothic literature, but he also shaped the way we see 18th-century social and political history. Neither was he all frivolity; Walpole was ardently opposed to the slave trade, about which he corresponded with the campaigner Hannah More, predicting the future disasters of colonialism and Empire.
Walpole remained a confirmed bachelor until his end, preferring the company of older ladies and disgraced noblewomen, in addition to his abiding male friendships. (Biographers, pondering his sexuality, have typically concluded that he was most likely asexual.) Upon his death, then, Strawberry Hill passed to his cousin, Anne Seymour Damer, before having a series of fittingly eccentric owners and eventually being restored and opened to public. It is a fate that befits what was the most famous house in Georgian England, which fuelled a fashion for medievalism. There are, of course, architectural historians and detractors for whom Strawberry Hill will always be a sham (Augustus Pugin among them) and a Frankenstein’s monster of borrowed, non-cohesive influences and aesthetics. It will, however, always stand testament to the imagination of the man. That he wrote, following his period abroad, “the most remarkable thing I have observed since I came abroad, is, that there are no people so obviously mad as the English,” was perhaps prophetic. And gloriously so.