Horace Walpole’s gothic vision is preserved in this fanciful folly
Let us take you down, to paraphrase the Beatles, to Strawberry Hill, where nothing is real. Or that’s certainly how it feels as you approach this fantastical white gothic villa close to the River Thames in Twickenham. With its turrets, crenellations, and jauntily-shaped windows, this is as close as real life gets to a child’s drawing of what a fanciful home might look like. Yet there is nothing childish about the results.
The story of Strawberry Hill began in 1747 when Horace Walpole leased a 17th-century property known locally as Chopped-Straw Hall in what was then a village on the outskirts of London. Horace was the son of Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and he brought a suitably bureaucratic approach to renovating his new home. He began by establishing a ‘Committee of Taste’ which included two amateur architects Richard Bentley and John Chute. They were charged with executing Walpole’s vision of creating a ‘little Gothic castle’, despite not possessing many of the requisite technical abilities.
They sidestepped this issue by looking back at plans for medieval gothic buildings instead and creating their own versions of them as Walpole added to the building over a 30-year period. On occasion he employed true professionals, including Robert Adam, a leading architect of the era.
As work progressed, Walpole operated an open-house policy and gratefully received guests eager to see how the building was shaping up. In doing so, he allowed his particular vision to spread among the London cognoscenti and lead, many believe, to the fully-fledged gothic revival of architecture that came in the 19th century.
Despite that democratic approach, Walpole remained true to his own vision, clashing with Bentley in particular at times. In 2010, a £9 million restoration further underlined why he was right to maintain a steely focus.