Strawberry Hill House

Posted on May 3, 2016 by


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Life is dull when you are up to the withers in paint. Matte, gloss, silk, satin, emulsion you name it, sugar soap, sandpaper, brushes, big rollers, small rollers on and on day after day. Lordy, lordy, time for a Jolly. When did we last have a Jolly? So long, can’t remember. Where shall we go? What about Strawberry Hill in Twickenham? You know, the Gothic pile built by Horace Walpole, son of England’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. It’s not far, hour and a bit round the M25. Oh, go on then.

Alarm goes at 7am. Groan. What do you think? Shall we bother? Yes? No? Don’t mind if you say no, each hoping the other does, but no, so off we go for our Early Bird Guided Tour. Good job we booked one. Instead of demolishing his tiny house, Horace added and extended ad lib. The result is a higgledy piggledy warren of interconnecting rooms. A carefully planned chaos. No cohesion.

In Strawberry Hill, nothing is at it seems, it’s so faux even the trompe l’oeil is pretend trompe l’oeil, wall paper posing as trompe l’oeil. Some of the ‘Gothic stained glass windows’ are painted glass. The place is so theatrical, so flamboyant, Laurence Llewellyn Bowen springs to mind. He and Horace would have got on. This is the kind of place he would build with its ersatz Gothic towers, battlements and chimney pots.
In the garden, a lovely stone wall is, er, not stone, it’s wood covered in plaster to make it look like stone. Then there’s the faux ‘saint’ in the faux oratory. Turns out it once had wings. Not a saint, an angel, originally one of three. Was Horace being disingenuous? Or, like us, was he taken in?

Look at those lovely fan vaulted ceilings. And the friezes! What wonderful plaster work. Er, no, papier maché! The stone fireplaces? Plastered wood. How strange. This was a fabulously rich man for whom money was no object. Why did he not want a real stone walls and fireplaces? Was it because he never intended that Strawberry Hill should last? Its function was as a museum of curiosities. It wasn’t a home, he only went there in summer, it was a showcase for his bizarre, eclectic collection. He collected anything and everything except natural history.

Whatever the opposite is of having a good eye is, Horace had it. The painting he bought of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou turned out to be of two saints. The painting of Henry V turned out to be Henry VII. The ‘original’ Tudor chests and chairs were made in India for the UK export market a hundred and fifty years later. As for Gothic, well, ish. It was known as Strawberry Hill Gothic. Horace was no purist. If you want Gothic, think Pugin and The Palace of Westminster. What did Pugin think of Strawberry Hill? Hated it, ‘despised’ Walpole’s lack of seriousness. He said Strawberry Hill is sham Gothic but still, without Horace The Houses of Parliament might never have seen the light of day. It may be sham, it may be pseudo, it may be pretentious but it was the first, just as his Castle of Otranto was the first Gothic horror novel. Horace was the first to kick start the obsession with all things Gothic. Besides, unlike Pugin, Horace was not an architect, he was a dilettante, a wannabe writer. His novel gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford.

I couldn’t figure out why I was not taken with Strawberry Hill. I was reminded of Dr. Johnson and The Devil’s Causeway. Worth seeing? Yes, he said, but not worth going to see. I was also reminded of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I think it was down to expectations – no – assumptions. I assumed I was going to see a genuine Gothic Revival House.

I remain perplexed as to why Horace went for faux instead of the real thing. I am also perplexed as to why restorers invested in gold leaf to gild cheap papier maché, todays equivalent of polystyrene. Considering little else in the house is real and given his love of artifice, surely Horace would have approved of gold paint.

To appreciate Strawberry Hill, take it for what it is. A rich man’s Folly. Follys were all the rage in 18th century England. The poet Alexander Pope, who also lived in Twickenham, had one, Scott built his Grotto in Ware, Kew Gardens had its Chinese Pagoda and Bath had Sham Castle. When all is said and done, the house is in many ways astonishing and, if nothing else, extremely photogenic. Himself was delighted to have the opportunity of dusting off his wide angled lens but his lovely images go a long way to perpetrating the myth of a Gothic Strawberry Hill.

Justin, our Early Bird Guide, was excellent and the café served a mean Hot Flat Bread and good coffee.

One last thing. Make sure you ask directions to Horace’s Summer House, a faux Gothic chapel. We went round and round the grounds of St Mary’s University until we stumbled across it in the car park.

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