"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."
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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).