London Museum Challenge #10: Strawberry Hill

May 9, 2013 § 4 Comments

Strawberry Hill

Let me take you down, ‘cos I’m going to Strawberry Hill,

Nothing is real…

Sorry, couldn’t resist. And yes, I’m well aware that Strawberry Hill, the Gothic revival house built by Horace Walpole in what was once the countryside outside London, is not to be confused with Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army children’s home in Liverpool that inspired one of the Beatles’ most surreal songs, but the line ‘nothing is real’ could apply with equal justice to both.

What you need to know, if you visit Strawberry Hill, is that it is both a reconstruction and a work in progress. Walpole – politician, novelist, art historian and all-round polymath – began building it in 1749 as a country villa, as a showcase for his collections, and as one of the first attempts to revive Gothic architecture (albeit in a fairly eccentric fashion). Less than a century later, his heirs sold off almost the entire contents of the house. (The carved limewood cravat that Walpole used to greet his visitors in as a joke is now in the V&A, a good chunk of his library now belongs to Yale, and as for the rest, the search is still on.) In 1923 the college next door bought it. Only six years ago did restoration start, the curators and conservators relying on contemporary watercolours and prints to get a sense of what the rooms looked like in Walpole’s day. Although a decent proportion of the rooms are now open to the public, a second phase of restoration is now taking place (due to finish in a couple of years).

So this blinding white pile is doubly unreal – definitely not real Gothic, but a creative and highly individual reinterpretation of it, and also not composed of all the same materials as it was when Walpole lived in it. That isn’t to say it feels fake, far from it. I’ve visited Carcassonne and couldn’t wait to leave, it felt so wrong. Strawberry Hill feels as if it still contains Walpole’s mischievous spirit even if the plaster and gilt didn’t actually witness his passage.

Strawberry Hill: Gallery

Strawberry Hill: Gallery

Unlike country homes that were built purely for the owners’ private pleasure, Walpole always envisioned Strawberry Hill as a place to welcome visitors. The rooms are arranged, with a great sense of theatre, in an order designed to surprise and delight, and they still do. The Gallery is a case in point. The room steward* opens the door and you suddenly find yourself in a fairy chamber of red damask and gilded fan vaults (which, unlike their precedents in Westminster Abbey, are made not of stone but of papier mâché). The Tribune (one of the rooms Walpole constructed specifically for displaying small objects in cases) is based on part of another church – York Minster – in a similar combination of delicacy and flamboyance. With the bright palette and the sheer amount of gilding, it is, dare I say it, a sort of Rococo Gothic.

Strawberry Hill: Tribune

Strawberry Hill: Tribune

The garden, sadly, is one part of Strawberry Hill that can never be restored to its former state. When Walpole bought the land, it stretched all the way down to the Thames and the view, as captured in contemporary prints, was sweeping and bucolic. Now it’s cut off by several streets’ worth of houses, and although some of the original plantings of trees are being revived, it will probably never be more than a shadow of its original self. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, though, there is some compensation – the café, which calls itself… wait for it… The Committee of Taste. They were offering cherry-red wine sorbet and white chocolate-pistachio ice cream the day I visited. A scoop of each, a pot of tea and a seat under one of the young trees and you can imagine that nothing has changed… well, almost.

*One of the more peculiar aspects of Strawberry Hill (at least among country houses I’ve visited) is that each room has its own steward whose job is to give you a brief introduction, answer your questions and perform door-opening duties. The quality of steward I found to be somewhat variable (some were enthusiastic and knowledgeable, some… well, less so) but the one constant was that none of them did a desperately good job of selling The Castle of Otranto – most of them admitted never having read it and the one who did said, in not so many words, ‘don’t bother’. Still, I do like a good Gothic novel now and then, so maybe I’ll disregard this collective lack of enthusiasm and give it a go someday…

Tally: 10 down, 13 to go

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