Imagine a castle bristling with crenellations, now paint it white and add some gilding. Welcome to a tour inside Strawberry Hill House, a gothic pleasure dome built by Horace Walpole overlooking the Thames at Twickenham.
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Inside Strawberry Hill House
Horace Walpole wanted his new summer residence to look as if it had always been there. It needed to look like a castle, it needed to feel as if it been added to over the years not built all in one go, last year. He wanted visitors to go from dark to light and back again, experiexperiencing gloomthas they went. Walking into each room was to produce gasps of amazement. You enter via a fairly gloomy hall dominated by a really really fancy and light filled staircase, gloomth as you step in.
Climb up those stairs to the Strawberry Hill House library. No Billy bookcases for Walpole. He adorned his shelves with ornate carving and crenellations. When I grow up, I would like a library like this.
Next to the library is the Turkish Smoking Room, in Walpole’s day it was the Blue room. Baron de Stern and his wife Julia, owned the house in the late nineteenth century and did a bit of redecorating …. maybe a plush velvet ceiling is what Cultural Wednesday Towers needs?
Back to Walpole. In his quest for immediate history he dedicated one room to Holbein. Reproductions of Holbein’s drawings from the Royal Collection hung on deep blue walls. The ceiling was a papier mâché copy of the Queen’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle, so accurate a copy was it that when the original was lost in the 1992 Windsor Castle fire the Strawberry Hill ceiling was used a template for the restoration.
The tour of Strawberry Hill House meanders around. Just as you think that you must have seen as many over the top interiors that it is possible to fit in one house and that that unassuming door is bound to lead to the tea room, then you walk into the most jaw dropping room of all. The Gallery takes its inspiration from Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey and the tomb of Archbishop Bourchier (no, I don’t know who he is either) in Canterbury Cathedral. Gilded papier mâché imitates the Gothic stone and the walls are lined with crimson Norwich wool damask. Even Horace thought that he might have gone a little over the top in this room, writing to a friend:
“I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence.”
Just off the Gallery is the tiny but ornate Tribune. Modelled on the Tribune in the Uffizi Palace this bijou room was where Walpole kept the very best treasures of his collection to show his friends and family.
Finally you see the round drawing room. Once again Walpole raided the architectural pattern book and this time selected Edward Confessor’s tomb at Westminster Abbey as the model for his fireplace and the rose window in the old St Paul’s Cathedral as the pattern for the ceiling.
Who was Horace Walpole?
Horace Walpole was the son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. (Sir Robert was no slouch at house building himself take look at our visit to his home Houghton Hall) His given name was Horatio, but everybody called him Horace. He was also the 4th Earl of Oxford. For a time he was an MP but it is as an author and builder of an extravagant house that he is remembered. In 1764 he wrote The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story, which was the first Gothic novel. A nook at the top of the main staircase is dedicated to references to the book. Not too shabby to have invented both a new genre of literature and with Strawberry Hill Gothic, a new class of architecture.
Who lived at Strawberry Hill House?
Horace died childless and house was left to the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer and then to Elizabeth Waldegrave. Her grandson, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave eventually inherited the house with his wife Frances. He was dissolute, on one occasion he got drunk at the Derby, continued to Kingston with friends and drank more and ended up being imprisoned for ‘riotous behaviour’. Once he was out of gaol he was short of money and decided to sell the contents of Strawberry Hill House in what has been dubbed The Great Sale of 1842. Four years later he died leaving the house to his widow. Lady Frances was an interesting woman, she had first married the Earl’s brother and then the Earl, after his death she married the fabulously wealthy George Granville Harcourt and set about restoring Strawberry Hill House. She was pleased with her handiwork declaring
“Strawberry is more like a fairy palace than ever”
After her the house was owned by the Baron de Stern and then in 1923 put up for sale when it was bought by the Catholic Education Council who set up St Mary’s Catholic Teacher Training Centre in the house and grounds. For years the rooms were used as classrooms and accommodation for priests. St Mary’s College Strawberry Hill still occupies the grounds.
Strawberry Hill House Café
Strawberry Hill House has a cafe, of course it does! Fine cakes and light lunches are on offer. You can either eat inside or outside overlooking the gardens. I was lucky enough on my visit to sit outside and enjoy my Strawberry Hill House Afternoon Tea. For inspiration for other cultural watering holes check out my London Museum Cafés post.
Strawberry Hill House Gardens
Horace Walpole started planning his garden at the same time as he started building the house, it was every bit as important to him. Today the grounds are much smaller, in his day they went right down to the banks of the Thames. They are however still very beautiful with large swathes of lawn and sweeping flower beds. It is easy to imagine Horace or Frances, Lady Waldegrave sitting in the shell seat surveying the house.
Treasures from Faraway: Medieval and Renaissance Objects from the Schroder Collection until 19 July 2023
Horace Walpole was inordinately proud of his Wunderkammer – a collection of fabulous objects from history and around the world. Many aristocratic families had such collections. The Schroder family have been collecting rare and exotic things for generations, objects from their collection will be on display in Strawberry Hill House.
Visiting Strawberry Hill House
- Strawberry Hill House, 268 Waldegrave Road, TW1 4ST
- Open: House: Sunday – Wednesday 11am – 4pm
- Garden and Garden cafe Sunday – Thursday 10am – 4pm
- Admission: Adult £14.50, children free, Art Fund members free.
- Parking: there is a small car park
- Trains run from London Waterloo to Strawberry Hill, the station is a ten minute walk from the house.