Excursion Report: CRECS Goes Gothic at Strawberry Hill House, 16 May 2017

Horace Walpole, painted by John Giles Eccardt in 1754.

On 1 March, 2015 the Walpole Trust reopened Strawberry Hill House to the public. As the former home of Horace Walpole, famed (and famously eccentric) author of the first Gothic novel, the house has been a popular tourist destination since it was first built up in 1749.

At noon on 16 May 2017, twenty-three students and scholars from Cardiff University stepped blinking into the parking lot of Strawberry Hill House, out of the darkened bus that had carried them from rainy Wales. The weather in Twickenham was hardly Gothic-appropriate, but since the tour of the house had been arranged for the late afternoon, we had several hours to eat our bag lunches, stretch our legs in Strawberry Hill’s gardens, and snag a leisurely drink along the sunny banks of the Thames. By the time we returned to the House at 4pm, the group was happy, slightly sunburnt and ready to be thrilled, amazed and educated about Walpole’s ‘little Gothic castle’.

Gothic History

Our guide was Carole, a soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit and extensive knowledge of Strawberry Hill’s history, heritage, and restoration. The tour began outside the house, where we learnt how Strawberry Hill went from a small cottage to the massive, three-part castle it is today. Following Walpole’s death in 1797, the residence passed to various relatives, many of whom led quite dramatic lives. The stories Carole shared included the Engilsh sculptor (and wealthy widow) Anne Seymour Damer, illegitimate heiresses, a ‘slightly illegal wedding’, and a fall into debt that resulted in the sale of most of the house’s contents.

Strawberry Hill House after the 2012 renovation.

In 1861, the thrice-married Countess Frances Waldegrave took up residence. She established the House as a thriving social salon after her fourth marriage to Liberal politician Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, who encouraged her to buy back some of the auctioned-off estate. In 1923 the House was bought by St Mary’s University, which still has its campus in the western wing.

A grand Gothic fireplace is the centrepiece of the purple bedroom. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Through this intricate history, Strawberry Hill House was rebuilt and redecorated again and again. When the Walpole Trust set about restoring it to its original glory in the twenty-first century, the first question was how to go about it. After all, there was nothing ‘original’ about the House to begin with—from its revivalist architecture to its papier-mâché walls and ceilings, Strawberry Hill House is fake through and through.

In this, it is utterly Gothic. As Catherine Spooner notes, ‘[t]he construction of fake histories is integral to Gothic texts’. [1] Jerrold Hogle, likewise, writes that the Gothic is ‘grounded in fakery’ from its earliest origins. [2] Walpole himself famously stated that ‘my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead’, but today the House seems as solid as ever.

Gloomth and Glory

Our Cardiff tour group took the same route Walpole’s own guests would have, entering onto the base of a dark, curving staircase and ending in a series of glorious gold and blood-red chambers on the upper levels. Virtually every room is decorated in a different, vibrant colour, though all radiate that wonderful ‘gloomth’ (Walpole’s own word, a counterintuitive combination of ‘gloom’ and ‘warmth’) which continues to be so characteristic of both his house and the Gothic genre he initiated. One bedroom, painted a deep lilac and ornamented in pale wood, was apparently never even used. Of the libraries—Walpole had three at Strawberry Hill—the opposite was true. He read voraciously, and none of his books were just for show.

One of Walpole’s three libraries. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Carole reads to us from The Castle of Otranto. Photo by Michael Goodman.

The Castle of Otranto is visibly linked to the house in which its author first dreamt of it, and Walpole himself described Strawberry Hill as ‘the scene that inspired’ the novel. The play between light and dark in the house alone is fascinating, as sunlight and candlelight cast marvellous shadows through the intricate designs in the windows, walls, and balustrades. At the top of Strawberry Hill’s gloomth-laden staircase, Carole read us a passage from the Castle of Otranto, inviting us to imagine walking through the house’s halls at night, by the light of a single candle.

One of the tour’s undergraduate attendees, Laura Robinson, comments on this aspect of the House as well, suggesting:

It cannot be doubted that Horace Walpole’s eccentric and unique Strawberry Hill House reflects the Gothic literary tradition that began in the Romantic Period. Strawberry Hill’s architecture and the atmosphere created inside the house itself through the manipulation of light—particularly surrounding the staircase—creates a Gothic impression that we still recognize today.

Restoration and Revival

The final room of the tour. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Throughout the tour, we saw signs of the restoration project still underway. Teams of volunteers have re-painted, re-woven and re-embroidered the House’s various embellishments, using historically accurate techniques. The House also contains several pieces of furniture built to spec by the students of a nearby design school. The restoration workers were able to reproduce these designs so faithfully both because Walpole describes them extensively in his records, and because he commissioned a series of watercolours detailing each of the rooms. Even when it was brand new, then, Strawberry Hill House was already busy writing its own history.

Ironically, the pieces of the restoration that felt most faithful in light of Strawberry Hill House’s elaborate self-performance and fakery were not the painstakingly hand-embroidered bedclothes, but the digitally-reproduced sketches and paintings, machine-copied down to the last bump of oil paint. In one of the bedrooms hangs a magnificent, 3D-printed picture frame, which was then gilded and retouched using traditional methods. It perfectly embodies the elaborate, delightful sham that is Strawberry Hill House.

This 3D-printed frame was photographed from 400 different angles so it could be reproduced. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

All in the Details

In addition to the grand history Carole shared with us, small details and stories gave us a glimpse into Walpole’s own person and psyche. A muted, pastel-green room once contained Walpole’s curio collection, including numerous heirlooms from his beloved mother. In the dining room hangs a portrait of Walpole’s deceased aunt, who allegedly haunted the house. The legend varies: she either died of smallpox or was pushed down the stairs. Through the window of the best bedroom, we even got a glimpse of the cottage where Walpole would hide himself away during tours of Strawberry Hill House.

Walpole’s cottage hideway has been sold off and expanded since his death, but the building still stands. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

As Josie Powell, one of the undergraduate students on the tour, relays:

Strawberry Hill embodies all the typical Gothic conventions; vast spaces and dark colours create a sense of entrapment. Yet Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is more than just a Gothic building. It contains so much attention to detail that it is an invaluable example of social history.

We are very grateful to CRECS (who generously organised and funded the tour), to Learning and Education Coordinators Sally Stratton and Charlotte Hawkes, and to our fabulous guide Carole, who made the house and its tales come alive for us in all their Gothic glory.

CRECS goes Gothic at Strawberry Hill House. Photo by Michael Goodman.

References

[1] Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 38.

[2] Jerrold E. Hogle, ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp. 496–509 (p. 497).

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