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Strawberry Hill – a dream of gloomth

Strawberry Hill from the south.

South View of Strawberry Hill.

Miss Jessel and I recently had the opportunity to coordinate our haunted schedules and take a trip to Twickenham to visit one of the most unusual and, to my mind, beautiful houses in England.

Strawberry Hill is a unique building in English architecture – one that fits nowhere comfortably.  It is not a castle, nor a venerable ancestral seat, nor yet is it a picaresque folly or a classic English Villa.  What is, is drama, theatricality, the promise of dark mysteries and unfolding horror….In short, Strawberry Hill is as idiosyncratic, affected and inspired as the extraordinary man who created it.  A man who, saturated as he was with the gloomth and venerable barbarism he made fashionable, let his Gothic architectural masterpiece inspire his Gothic literary masterpiece…and thereafter spawn a whole genre of Gothic literature and popular culture.

Horace Walpole (1717 -1797): connoisseur, writer, art critic and gossip

Horace Walpole by Image by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

It is hard to read any history or biography concerning the eighteenth century without coming across some usually acerbically witty observations from Horace Walpole.  A voluminous correspondent, writer and art critic, he was deeply concerned with recording events around him, seeing on the spot observations as valuable tools for historians.  From the Coronation of George II to the Cock Lane Ghost, Walpole was there to offer his spiky comments to his correspondents and to posterity.

He was born in 1717 into the powerful elite of eighteenth century society. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was, in all but name, Britain’s first Prime Minister.  This is proved extremely beneficial for Horace, as his father ensured he never had to work by granting him 3 lucrative sinecures.  His mother, Catherine Shorter, whom he is said to have taken after, was from a family of eccentrics.

Walpole's parents (the frame is a 3D photocopy of the original).

Walpole’s parents, hanging in the Blue Bed Chamber (the origial frame was re-created on a 3D printer).

Like most of his contemporaries Walpole rounded off his formal education with a Grand Tour to the continent.  From 1739 -1741, accompanied by his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, he traveled to Italy.  Temperamentally very different: Gray liked to spend hours studying historical sites, while Walpole preferred living it up and partying on down, they soon fell out [1].  This tour, and its cultural influence was to have an important impact on his later ideas for Strawberry Hill as he endeavored to re-create the ‘gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals’ at home.

English tourists on the Grand Tour, 18th Century image. Source BBC.

English tourists on the Grand Tour, 18th Century image. Source BBC.

Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

Horace Walpole, by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

By 1747, Sir Robert had been in his grave for two years, leaving Horace, his youngest son the lease on a London property and enough money to begin looking about for a country retreat. Nothing as grand as Houghton Hall where he had grown up, but something more bijou and compact. A bachelor pad, but with enough space for the chi-chi little house parties that Walpole was so fond of throwing.  It had to be somewhere fashionable, after-all Walpole was a man of taste and refinement, and it had to have good transport connections to the capital with its social and political scene.

At that time Twickenham was being what we would now call gentrified.  By the time Walpole went house-hunting, Twickenham’s rustic cottages had been transformed into stylish English Villa’s (such as the classically elegant Marble Hill, home to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, and long-suffering mistress of George II)  and real estate was in seriously short supply. Walpole was lucky though, and snapped up the last vacant plot – Chopp’d Straw Hall – from one Mrs Chenevix, a luxury ‘toy’ woman (think uber-posh geegaws for the very rich, rather than Barbie dolls and teddy bears for the proletariat).  This image of the house as an exquisite toy seemed to tickle Walpole and he often referred to his home in those terms:

“It is a little play-thing of a house that I got out of Mrs Chenevix’s shop, and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.”

He was to spend the next fifty years adding and elaborating on the original house – as Maev Kennedy wrote, Walpole achieved a:

‘spectacular conjuring trick [..] [a] miniature medieval castle wrapped around a modest little country house.’ [2]

How not to build English Villa – throwing away the rule book


Plate showing ‘the five orders’ from a book by da Vignola. 16th Century. Source Wikipedia.

From Palladio to Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington, by the eighteenth century the prevailing architectural fashion was Classical: symmetrical, ordered, regulated by the ‘noble rules’ and harking back to the roman country villa [3].

When Walpole chose to buck the trend and go Gothick, he was not the first. Vanbrugh and William Kent had been earlier trailblazers.  Where he was different was in using actual architectural examples to create a new Gothic building.  He was not adding a sympathetic extension, or restoring an existing Gothic building like Vanbrugh and Kent had done.  He was taking research and turning it into a reality, twisting the invariably Classical  English Villa into something more organic, more irregular, dramatic, more English.  And it was completely at odds with the dominant Classicism of the day.  As Michael Snoddin, curator at the V&A commented:

“The most striking external feature of Strawberry Hill was its irregular plan and broken picturesque silhouette.” [4]

It must have seemed shocking to his neighbors!


Yet, despite its oddity, it also fitted with the sensibility of the eighteenth century perfectly, the Picaresque movement was popular at the time, and the very nature of eighteenth century style was very feminine – think Rococo curves.  It also tapped into the growing interest of Antiquarians in the Medieval past of Britain, whilst not omitting modern conveniences, as Walpole was at pains to point out:


The Tribune, where Walpole displayed his most valued treasures.

“In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinement in luxury.  The designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern.”

There was almost a national pride in the resurgence of the style – something that would become more pronounced in the 19th Century when the Victorian’s enthusiastically embraced the Gothic style of architecture.  Walpole certainly appreciated that England’s Medieval heritage needed to be preserved, and this is typified in his method of using actual examples of medieval decoration and interior design.  His preferred period was the Perpendicular period of 1330 – 1550, and this is evident at Strawberry Hill [5].

According to Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi:

“Horace Walpole used new materials, had amazing ideas, but utilized these to reinvest the past with excitement.  Both Georgian and Victorian Gothic architecture grew from a style which recalled the past but which was also the epitome of modernity.” [6]

Hence the term Strawberry Hill Gothic, or Gothick with a ‘k’ was coined,  to distinguish this modern Gothic from true Gothic style.

Tromp L'oeil detail in the Entrance hall, from Prince Arthur's tomb at Winchester.

Detail of the Entrance hall wallpaper, a design taken from Prince Arthur’s tomb at Worcester cathedral.

My Fellow Goths

The Stunning Long Gallery

The Stunning Long Gallery

Although Walpole was the driving force behind Strawberry Hill, he also deferred to and acted upon the decor and design suggested by his Committee of Taste, his ‘fellow Goths’.  Membership varied over the years but the two most prominent members were John Chute, who specialized in early buildings, antiquarianism, and heraldry; with Richard Bentley influencing interiors, furniture and decoration.


Together Walpole and his Committee created a theatrical experience using a range of techniques: use of light (the windows are slightly larger than might be expected), the absence of light (blue glass and stained glass give a wonderful Gloomth to many of the rooms), use of vivid colour and rich gilding (one can only imagine how gorgeous the Long Gallery must have looked by candle-light – with its gilded fan vaults ablaze and casting eerie shadows on the walls).

Many of the rooms are vivid hues – the Blue Bed Chamber, the Rich Red of the Long Gallery, the purple of the Holbein Room. – while some rooms are muted – the entrance hall and staircase, the trunk-ceiled passage setting a more sombre scene.  Whereas today, the sheer peacockery of the place removes any sense of dark mystery or foreboding, in the eighteenth century the impression would have been quite different.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

As Chalcraft and Viscardi note, Walpole used illusion to create a mood for each room – nothing is quite what it seems. Plaster, wood and paint imitate stone carvings, giving, as Sally Jeffrey observed, an almost illustrated delicacy to the building reminiscent of its academic sources [7]. Throughout the building, the vistas are carefully planned, the visitor moves through the house in a particular way,  the design and layout is immersive, intended to alter the mood of the viewer, or focus their attention on a particular object or scene.  Today, the house is sparsely furnished, but in Walpole’s day it was crammed with the six thousand objects he had collected, each placed for maximum impact and each with its own story to tell.

From darkness into the light. Planned vistas in Strawberry Hill.

From darkness into the light. Planned vistas in Strawberry Hill.

No surprise then that the house has always attracted visitors, Walpole was even occasionally run out of his own home by the massed hordes of upper crust sight-seers, and he would retreat to a cottage nearby.  However, oh the whole he seemed to have rather enjoyed the attention, even going so far as to create rules for visitors and issuing the very first country house guide in 1774, for their edification.

Walpole's rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

Walpole’s rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

 The Castle of Otranto

Of course, the fame of Strawberry Hill also lies in it being the inspiration for the tale cited as the first ever Gothic Horror story – The Castle of Otranto.

On 9th March 1765 Horace Walpole wrote to the Rev William Cole:

” I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour.  In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate…” [8]

Staircase and Lantern. Image by Lenora.

Staircase, designed by Richard Bentley and inspired by Rouen cathedral, and the supposed setting of Walpole’s dream.

And so the Gothic Horror Genre was born. The story is rather like the house itself, which is not quite what it purports to be.  in 1764 Otranto was launched onto the reading public as an ancient Italian Tale, discovered in a remote library and translated by the antiquarian William Marshall.  Once its warm reception had been assured, subsequent editions named Walpole as the author.

Unfortunately, rather like the house itself, the tale has lost some of its sense of dread and mystery over the years, leaving a theatrical, slightly breathless melodrama in its stead: death by gigantic helmet, portraits coming to life, a rotting corpse hermit with a message from beyond the grave and swooning maidens aside, the tale does lay out the standard tropes enthusiastically adopted in later Gothic tales.  There is a cursed noble family, a long-lost heir, a doomed highborn beauty.  Earthly moral peril and otherworldly threat create dynamic tension and heighten the drama.

Mario Praz, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition, despite acknowledging The Castle of Otranto  to be the first of its genre, sees it as a rather weak example of  Gothic horror, noting somewhat dismissively that like Strawberry Hill itself, Otranto was merely – ‘Rococo in Gothic disguise’.  [9]


Walpole’s source of inspiration? Carceri series, by Piranesi. Image public domain, via Wikimedia.

Despite the modern criticisms, in the Eighteenth century the tale was a ‘best seller’. The popularity of the Castle of Otranto may seem to be a paradox in the Enlightened eighteenth century.  However, the century that prided itself on the rational and scientific progress was also a century that saw more and more people becoming urbanized and losing their connection to the countryside in the wake of ‘progress’.  Almost as a counterbalance to things becoming to rational and to classical, there was a growing interest in the picturesque and in Britain’s medieval past as people yearned to rediscover and reconnect with the chaos of nature.

In literature De Sade and in art Piranesi tapped into and exploited this desire for primordial chaos and destruction.  As Praz explains, a sensibility grew up where horror became a source of delight – charm and repulsion were combined and “the ‘beautiful horrid’ passed by insensible degrees into the ‘horribly beautiful'” [10]

Walpole can be seen in his creation of Strawberry Hill  and his writing of The Castle of Otranto successfully tapping into the zeitgeist of the mid-eighteenth century and in doing so became both a fore-runner of the Gothic  literature so popular later in the century and of the Gothic architectural style so beloved of the Victorians.

The armory from the staircase.

The armoury from the staircase.  A great plumed helmet, reminiscent of Otranto, can be seen in the middle arch.

So, despite Walpole’s fears that ‘My buildings are paper…and will all be blown away in ten years after I am dead’ both of his great works, Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto, have survived the centuries to become culturally significant landmarks.

Strawberry Hill today

After Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill suffered a checkered fate with some sympathetic and some not so sympathetic custodians.  Sadly, the famed collection was broken up and sold in the 1840’s.

The Waldegrave Wing.

The 19th Century Waldegrave Wing.

Restoration, and hand woven bedsheets.

Restoration in progress – hand-woven sheets are laid out on the table.

By 2004 Strawberry Hill was listed as endangered by the World Monument Fund.    But, thanks to the Strawberry Hill Trust the house was saved.  The Trust are restoring the house to the state it was when Horace Walpole lived in it, so the colours are vivid and the textiles fresh.  The visitor may sometimes have difficulty telling what is ‘real’ and what is a reconstruction, but the overall effect is glorious and I feel sure Walpole would have approved.

It is the 300th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s birth next year, and as part of the celebrations the Trust planned to try to reunite Horace Walpole’s lost collection with Strawberry Hill.  Bringing together hundreds of items from all over the world is a huge undertaking, and now it looks like this won’t happen until 2018.  However, it should be well worth the wait.

To find out more about visiting Strawberry Hill, you can find their website at:


To find out more about the Walpole Collection, visit the Lewis Walpole Library:



 Sources and notes

Images:  By Lenora unless otherwise stated.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Horace-Walpole-4th-earl-of-Orford [1]

Chalcraft, Anna and Viscardi, Judith, 2011, ‘Strawberry Hill Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle’ Francis Lincoln Ltd [5] [6] [7] [and most quotes from Horace Walpole]

Fairclough, Peter, ed. and Praz, Mario, 1986, ‘Three Gothic Novels’, Penguin [8] [9]

Jeffery Sally, ‘Architecture’ in Ford, Boris, Ed, 1995, ‘The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain Vol 5 Eighteenth Century Britain’, Cambridge University Press [3] [7]

Kennedy, Maev, 25 Feb 2015, ‘Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s fantasy castle, to open its doors again’ , The Guardian.  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/25/strawberry-hill-horace-walpole-gothic-castle-otranto-open-again [2]

Walpole, Horace, republished 2016, ‘A Description of Strawberry Hill’ The Strawberry Hill Trust.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Walpole [4]