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Strawberry Hill Forever












Are we in Westminster Abbey, or in a medieval castle?  No, this is the Gothic Wendy house built over a period of 40 years by Horace Walpole. He was the son of Robert Walpole who was effectively Prime Minister throughout the reign of George 11, one of the longest serving in history and he left behind some delicious quotes.

The very idea of true patriotism is lost, and the term has been prostituted to the very worst of purposes. A patriot, sir! Why, patriots spring up like mushrooms!

Pity he didn’t leave a definition of patriotism, or perhaps it was obvious back then.

Horace’s Strawberry Hill  (by the Thames in Twickenham) is amusing, playful and madly eccentric. His novel, The Castle of Otranto, rates a mention in every Eng Lit course as the precursor to the horror/Gothic genre of writing and the Trustees of the house arrange an occasional talk on the subject. On February 18, 2018, one can book to listen to Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic ghost stories.

As you can tell, there is Gothic detail galore- mainly wood carving, not plaster- and dim lighting adds to the wonderfully creepy atmosphere. Shields, helmets and bucklers make the most of the medieval gloom. In fact Walpole strove to achieve a “gloomth” (he coined the word) with different kinds of  coloured stained glass in all the rooms-  knights in armour battling fantastical creatures and so on.

Vasari was scathing about the Gothic- the “barbarous German style of medieval architecture.” He linked it to the marauding East German tribes who sacked Rome in 410.

Horace Walpole and some contemporaries were precursors to the Romantic movement in which mystery, atmosphere, imagination overrode the restraining hand of classicism. Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein is a distant relation to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and a third cousin to Phantom Thread (Daniel Day-Lewis’s  purported last film) which I have just been to see.

Castle of Otranto, is full of hysterical dialogue: ” Oh my Lord! The Prince, the Prince, the helmet! The helmet!”

“Villain! What sayest thou?”

“Peace, blockhead!”

Great writing exercise for 12 year olds.

And everyone in the Western world has marvelled at the black lips, safety pins and clanking chains of Goth fashionistas.https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/mar/21/fashion1


The striking looking woman on the left is an American volunteer at Strawberry stricken by Gothic fever. Her Pre-Raph auburn hair and nipped in waist are as stylish as her surroundings. Note the foxed, ghostly mirror.

It is obvious that Horace’s taste ran to the camp.

The writer Letitia Hawkins remembered a pallid aesthete tripping everywhere on his toes. “His figure was not merely tall, but more properly long and slender to excess: his complexion and particularly his hands of a most unhealthy paleness . . . he always entered a room in that style of affected delicacy, which fashion had then made almost natural . . . knees bent and feet on tip toe as if afraid of a wet floor.”

Can’t you just see him flitting through his rooms (some, especially bedrooms, are gemutlich  and charming). The restoration of the house has given back some startling modern colours to the walls- brilliant blues and crimsons- and allowed the visitor to appreciate a singular eccentric and collector of real and fake antiquarian furniture and artefacts.

And yet, for all its pretensions, it has a homely feel and I could happily live in it, by the banks of sweet Thames, if only a teacher training college didn’t exist at the bottom of the garden.

charming wallpaper

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