A visit to the glorious newly restored gothic-fantasy Strawberry Hill House.
Built by author Horace Walpole between 1747-1792 in leafy Twickenham, it is a twenty-minute drive southwest from central London.
With its castellated parapets, 3-meter tall pinnacled turrets, and exuberant gilded and ornamented rooms, it is an enchanting and inspiring trip back to the eighteenth-century.
This enchanting villa had been listed on the World Monuments Fund’s 100 most-endangered historic heritage sites. The house, rescued from extreme disrepair and given a two-year roof-to-floor-boards total restoration, reopened on April 2 this year.
I recently took an afternoon trip from London to view Strawberry Hill House. Its boldly asymmetrical mystery, surprise and sense of the theatrical are immediately engaging and exciting.
Strawberry Hill House is a masterpiece—both in its original concept and in the refinement, precision, artistry and focus of its extensive two-year restoration.
This witty villa, Britain’s finest example of Georgian Gothic Revival architecture, was designed as a fantasy and escape by aesthete, consummate entertainer, writer and historian Horace Walpole. He planned it as his summer retreat, and relied for its design and plans on many friends and architects, including the celebrated classicist Robert Adam.
Come with me for a fabulous first look at this eccentric, original and beautifully crafted house and its artistic $15 million restoration.
My friend Suzanna Allen, an expert on historic architecture, inspired my visit.
Suzanna had visited the house last fall when it was ‘strictly a hard-hat site’, and far from completion, but she could see even in debris and chaos and paint and plaster in progress that this would be an exquisite and refined restoration, with expected completion April 2011.
I did some research on Horace Walpole (a man with time on his hands, he collected books and art and was a dilettante in architecture). I studied Gothic revival (Walpole started the trend toward Gothic Revival houses and even the House Of Parliament, in London). Then I headed to Strawberry Hill House with high hopes.
Strawberry Hill was one of the best-documented houses in Britain, and Walpole commissioned drawings and paintings as it was being completed.
The devoted conservation team worked from Walpole’s original art to restore windows, wall finishes and faux paintings to original dimensions and colors. No surface was left untouched. The exterior was restored to its original ‘wedding cake’ appearance.
Strawberry Hill has twenty-five main rooms on view on two floors. Teams or historians, restoration architects, contractors, surveyors, structural engineers, paint analysts, wallpaper experts, glass conservators, conservation students, art studios, fabric weavers, scagliola repair specialists, and landscape architects worked on the project for two years. Some work is still in progress, and historic furniture is being gathered.
An astute decision was made to leave some rooms partially completed so that visitors can view the woeful state of the walls and ceilings ‘before’, and see the depredations of time, weather, neglect, and badly judged ‘updates’.
The Gallery: The sumptuous and highly ambitious gallery, with its gilded fan-vaulted ceiling, has walls newly hung with custom-woven Norwich crimson damask. It’s the villa’s show-stopper. It measures fifty-six feet long, seventeen-feet high, and thirteen-feet wide. This was the room in which Walpole gathered his friends.
The Hall: The hall has a gothic staircase ornamented at each stage with carved antelopes (odd creatures, indeed) brandishing shields. Walpole’s original trompe l’oeil Gothic wallpaper has been artfully restored. Walpole’s design concept was for the entry rooms to have an air of dark and atmospheric ‘gloomth’ to accentuate the glory of the upstairs rooms.
The Tribune: With its magnificent star ceiling, the tribune was based on the treasure room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Here Walpole kept his collections. The room had been damaged by marauding squirrels.
The Refrectory, or Great Parlor: Tables were brought out for this dining room when Walpole was entertaining. It is thirty-feet long, and twenty feet wide. The elaborate Gothic Revival chimneypiece was cleaned of paint and water damage.
The Library: Books were arranged within Gothic arches of pierced work. During the restoration, oramental windows were replaced. Walpole’s books from the library were sold in 1842, and many are now housed in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale.
The Round Dining Room: Royalty, statesmen, and foreign dignitaries were received at Strawberry Hill House. The restored circular dining room was lavishly decorated with custom-woven crimson Norwich damask.
“My house will outlive battles and heroes.” — Horace Walpole,
Who was Horace Walpole?
Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was born in London, the youngest son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He spent some months in Twickenham with relatives in 1726, but did not settle in Twickenham until later, when he acquired his "little plaything house" from Mrs. Chenevix. At the time, Twickenham, near the leafy banks of the River Thames (and not far from legendary Eel Pie Island) was a chic country retreat from London. Even today it is quiet, tree-shaded, and scenic.
Walpole, a collector of art and artifacts, soon made his intentions clear: "I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill". Surprisingly, Walpole expected everyone to pitch in with materials, romantic artifacts, architectural fragments and art, so he asked his friends for salvaged old painted glass, suits of armor, or anything ornamental and quirky for embellishment and mood-setting.
Walpole, a man of inspired and fearless taste, spent the rest of his life in this pursuit, in writing gossipy waspish letters, histories, and founding a printing press there in 1757.
Walpole, whose style and genius lives on in Strawberry Hill, is primarily, one suspects, famous as the son of Sir Robert Walpole Britain’s first prime minister. He wrote many letters and one gothic novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto’ that was not printed at Strawberry Hill, but published anonymously in London in 1764.
I loved my visit. Seeing and walking through historic and superbly maintained significant buildings for the first time is especially thrilling.
My slow meander through this dreamy place ended with Assam tea in the cloistered tearoom, overlooking the newly planted gardens and green velvet lawns (complete with distant pale-skinned sunbathers).
It’s so English.
I walked down to the grassy banks of the Thames and imagined Walpole, just back from a Grand Tour, entertaining his swell pals, indulging his foibles, and leaving his own glorious heritage, now superbly brought back to life.
Strawberry Hill, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, UK
Strawberry Hill, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, UK
The house is open Saturday-Wednesday, 12 noon –4.30pm. Closes in October for the winter season.
For the visit, request a dramatic audio-guided tour that replicates through the eyes and ears of Walpole’s housekeeper, the arrived of twenty-four French dinner guests. Delightful.
For more information on World Monuments Fund Britain: www.wmf.org.uk
Restoration architects: Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins, Architects, www.inskip-jenkins.co.uk
All photographs, exclusive to THE STYLE SALONISTE, are by noted French photographer, Vincent Thibert, firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography published here with express permission of the photographer.
Vincent Thibert (find him also on Facebook) was born in Paris on July 9, 1959. He studied painting and drawing at l’Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs. For the last 24 years he has been shooting editorial photography, mostly for interiors and design publications including Architectural Digest, Cote Sud, Cote Ouest, Cote East, and Elle Décor.