Strawberry Hill | A visit to a Gothic masterpiece in Twickenham
The history behind Horace Walpole’s unique 18th century home.
Without a doubt, Strawberry Hill is one of the most unique houses in the capital. I was first introduced to it when I saw an Instagram photo of the building’s stunning Gallery and wanted to find out more. Built as a private home, it stands in Twickenham, south-west London, a short walk from the Thames and is now open to the public as a museum.
Strawberry Hill was built in stages from 1749 to 1776 as a home for Horace Walpole (1717-1797), a politician and the son of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Horace was under pressure to find himself a country seat (18th century Twickenham was countryside) and found one of the last sites available in the very fashionable area. The original house on the site was called Chopp’d Straw Hall, which Horace wasn’t too impressed with and renamed his new build Strawberry Hill after finding the name on an old lease.
Work on the house started in 1749 with Horace conceiving a vision of a Gothic castle. His inspiration from Medieval architecture predated the Victorian architectural fashion for Gothic revival many decades later. Horace and his team of amateur architectures looked at the Henry VII chapel and tombs at Westminster Abbey, as well as tombs from Canterbury Cathedral for ideas. The resulting building looks like a cross between castles and Gothic cathedrals. The first stage of construction was complete by 1753, with a second stage of alterations taking place in 1760, a third in 1772, with work finally being completed in 1776, costing £20,720 – a rather hefty sum in the 18th century.
Stepping inside of the house, each room has a different look and character and they certainly reflect the Gothic exterior. Your eyes are in for a treat with grand fireplaces, gold leaf, stained glass and bold coloured walls and wallpaper. Walpole was incredibly proud of his house, which soon became somewhat of a tourist attraction. He allowed only four people to visit a day and published a list of rules, such as no children. Understandably, he soon became tired of the tours and left the job to his housekeeper while he retreated to the privacy of his cottage in the grounds.
During my visit, we entered through the stunning hall and grand staircase, which Walpole described as ‘the chief beauty of the castle’. The hall is decorated with wallpaper printed with Gothic arches, taken from Prince Arthur’s (1486-1502) tomb in Worcester cathedral. Today, most of the wallpaper is a faithful, modern recreation, although some of Walpole’s original paper, somewhat peeling, remains on the staircase. Meanwhile, the balustrade, designed by Richard Bentley (1708-1782), feature antelopes holding shields.
One of my favourite rooms in the building is the breath-taking Gallery – understandably popular for weddings today. The Gallery was the location for Walpole’s entertaining and has been restored to what it would have looked like during his time. The gilded papier mâché ceiling really is a sight to behold, while the red damask wallpaper is a recreation based on fragments found in the Great North Bedchamber.
Another ornate ceiling features in the Holbein Chamber – a purple room used for entertaining. The room’s two main features are the grand fireplace, based on Archbishop Warham’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral and a screen inspired by one at Rouen Cathedral. The religious theme is particularly dominant in the Round Room, with an arched bay window featuring stained glass overlooking the garden. The room’s fireplace was inspired by Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey and was worked on by acclaimed Georgian architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).
Following Walpole’s death in 1797, the estate passed on to his cousin Anne Seymour Damer and further family members. In the early 19th century, two heirs John Waldegrave and his younger brother George treated the house very badly, with the latter selling off most of Walpole’s collection of art, antiquities and furniture in the Great Sale of 1842 to clear his debts. Countess Frances Waldegrave (1821-1879), who was originally married to John before his death in 1840 and his brother George after, brought the house back from the brink after the latter died in 1846. She remarried twice and was able to restore and extend the house.
In 1923, the house moved out of private hands after it was bought by St Mary’s University, which at the time only had 250 students. Today, the house is leased to the Strawberry Hill Trust, who have restored the building and opened it to the public. A shop and coffee house are also on site.
- Strawberry Hill House, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, TW1 4ST. Nearest station: Strawberry Hill (trains from Waterloo). Opening times vary. Tickets: Adults £12, Under 16s free. For more information, visit the Strawberry Hill website.
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