Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill was the most famous house of its age. Both house and Horace Walpole have been described many times before. In 1747 he acquired the small nondescript villa on the banks of the Thames, in fashionable Twickenham that he was to transform into a "a gingerbread castle", "a Gothic mousetrap" and a "paper house". From now until the end of his life, nearly fifty years later, Strawberry Hill was to be the centre of Horace Walpole's life. He never married.

"Visions you know have always been my pasture.....Old castles, old pictures, old histories and a babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one."

Walpole's interest in the Gothic dated from when he first saw the King's College Chapel ceiling while an undergraduate at Cambridge. But he had no interest in trying to recreate the past, what he wanted to was to put on a show, deploying theatrical effect to conjure up an atmosphere of "gloomth". In doing so he created the style known as Strawberry Hill Gothick, at a time when the Classical idiom was thought ideal for the design of country houses.

"It (Strawberry Hill) was built to please my own taste, and to some degree please my own visions". 

And of course it helped that he was immensely rich. Son of the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole he received lucrative  government sinecures worth thousands a year, but it can't be said that he did not spend it well.

Strawberry Hill is a fabulous confection conceived to house a museum that contained Walpole's expanding collection of art and relics from "Queen Bertha'a comb" to a locket containing "hair from Mary Queen of Scots" and a "spur worn by King William at the Battle of the Boyne."

Walpole wanted his house and collections to be admired. He opened his house to the public allowing four visitors a day. The upper class visitors were shown around by Walpole himself  leaving the lower order to be escorted by the housekeeper for a guinea a tour.

 He introduced an advanced booking system: "Every ticket will admit the Company between the hours of 12 and 3 before dinner. The house will never be shown after dinner nor at all but from the first of May to the first of October." And ........."Those who have tickets are desired not to bring children."  In what is a great touch, today's visitors are still given a facsimile of  Walpole's guide as their entry ticket.

The first major work at Strawberry Hilll was the staircase hall, begun in 1753 to the designs of Richard Bentley. It was based on the library staircase at Rouen Cathedral. Bentley was to remain Walpole's chief designer for ten years. Horace Walpole was to describe the hall as 'the most particular and chief beauty of the Castle'. The stone-coloured trompe-l'oeil tracery on the walls was copied from the tomb of Prince Arthur in Worcester Cathedral.

In his little hall Walpole strove to invoke the fashionable melancholy of Alexander Pope's poem 'Eloisa to Abelard'; Pope was a close neighbour. When a gunpowder mill three miles away blew up, the glass on either side of he front door shattered and Walpole wrote that the saints had been 'martyred'.

At night a black japanned lantern with painted glass  gave a shadowy light from a solitary candle, contributing to the air of melancholy. This famously gave rise to Walpole's dream in 1764, of a giant mailed fist appearing from the top of the stairwell above. He woke from a fever to start writing his novel, The Castle of Otranto.

The first major extension would be  the Great Parlour, dominated by Bentley's fantastic Gothick chimney piece. While the fireplaces may have been copied from Medieval tombs there were carpets on the floors.

"In truth I do not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience and modern refinements in luxury."

This is the room that contained the famous Bentley-Walpole designed chairs with black Gothic window-tracery backs.

The walls were originally hung with portraits of family and friends, some by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Opposite the fireplace hung  a painting of Walpole's three nieces, The Ladies Waldegrave 1780, by Reynolds. After his death in 1797 he left Strawberry Hill to the unmarried daughter of a cousin, Lady Anne Seymour Damer, a noted sculptor and then to the Waldegraves, the family of his great niece. In 1848 the Waldegrave family sold off the contents, to their shame leaving the house stripped bare.

 Walpole installed Gothick bookcases in the library of painted wood derived from the stone doors in the screen of Old St Paul's, and the chimney piece was inspired by John of Eltham's tomb.

Bentley made his last designs for Walpole with the chimneypiece for the Holbein Chamber (so-called because it contained drawings of the royal Holbein portraits), based on Archbishop Wareham's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral and an intricate screen derived from the choir gates at Rouen. Despite their origins these remain among Bentley's most fantastical creations. By 1761 Walpole could no longer tolerate Bentley and he was sacked. His brilliant and original designs could could not compensate for his shortcomings, his laziness and extravagance, and Walpole a withering snob could not forgive him for bringing his common wife to Strawberry Hill when guests of the highest rank were present. From then on the designs were devised by Chute, until his death in 1776 and the recently co-opted Thomas Pitt, a nephew of the Great Commoner.

Until Bentley's departure the alterations to the original building had not been on a large scale but in 1760 comes the start of Strawberry Hill's most important contribution to 18th architectural history; the addition of the cloister and the gallery above it stretching westwards and terminating in the great round tower so creating the romantic shape of the house. Strawberry Hill was the first house to have been designed to have an irregular outline.

The gallery, over fifty feet in length and thirteen feet wide is the largest room in the house and was intended to resemble a Tudor long gallery. The room is spectacular, over the top and and very chic.

Elaborate canopied niches taken from Archbishop Bourchier's tomb were ranged along the wall opposite the windows. They were decorated with looking-glass covered with gold lattice-work. The settees, chairs and stools were also covered in crimson damask and their frames painted black and gold. A specially woven (Moorfields) carpet ran down the centre of the floor, the remainder of which contained ranks of furniture and tables laden with sculpture and other treasures. Against the crimson damask walls were hung Walpole's best pictures.

All the rooms in the house were packed with this magpie's collections, from works of the highest quality to trinkets, trivial souvenirs and mementoes of his friends. Adjoining the gallery and the great bedchamber is the celebrated Chapel, later called the Tribune and later still the Cabinet. This small room with semi-circular apses in each wall, a ceiling derived from the Chapter House at York pierced by a yellow glass star-shaped skylight, became a repository for some of the most precious objects in Walpole's collection, including such unholy objects as statues of  Antonius and the Apollo Belvedere to a snuff box of lapis lazuli. Every available inch of wall space was hung with portraits, few of religious subjects but all of family, historical or artistic interest. There was a grill over the door to keep the visitors out.

"Vulgar people always see with the ends of their fingers."

The great bedchamber was built to the north of the gallery and, adjoining it the Cabinet.

With the addition of the round tower, containing the kitchen on the ground floor and the round drawing-room  with the great bow window on the first floor, Walpole's house was more or less complete, (with the exception of later offices).

So Strawberry Hill became the most fabulous showplace of its age.