All the lifestyle magazines and TV programmes endlessly use that tired old phrase “put your own stamp on it” when talking about moving in to a new home. This is not a new idea however as people have been “putting their stamp” on their homes for centuries, it’s just that some people make more of a mark than others. This is certainly true of Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, once the home of Sir Horace Walpole, son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, writer, collector and politician. Walpole purchased the land and two small houses in the 1740’s and in 1748 began the task of creating the most incredible fairy-tale house in the Georgian Gothic Revival style. It was a task that was to take almost 50 years to complete and saw stunning examples of gilding, plaster work, carving complimented by extravagant soft furnishings, all to indulge his tastes and to impress both his friends and other “people of fashion and style”. This is dandyism taken to another level completely!
The back of Strawberry Hill House
Front of Strawberry Hill House
Horace Walpole lived here!
On arrival and after purchase of your timed entry ticket you are admitted by way of the front door next to which is a copy of the original statement drafted by Walpole about the admittance of fee paying visitors – even back in the 18th century people paid to gawp at the homes of the rich! Basically he became so tired of people knocking on his door that he decided that people needed to buy a ticket in advance and only 4 people a day could come in (a rule he sometimes relaxed to suit himself) and most definitely no children were allowed! Today, visitors are greeted by a house guide who explains a little about the background of the house and Walpole and then you are released into the house itself. On entry the first thing that strikes you is how very dark the entrance hall is. It is dominated by a staircase which spirals upwards towards a cupola that lets the light in.
Looking down to the entrance hall
Carved goats in gilded cages act as sentries on the stair newels
Visitors are allowed to roam at will freely through the house and the room stewards are very knowledgeable and willing to talk about their rooms. I was a little bemused when one lady room steward shouted at me to turn round and look at a portrait of Horace Walpole on the wall behind me, I felt a bit disconcerted and left the room swiftly!
One of the ornate fireplaces to be found throughout the house
Another highly decorative fireplace, with mirror above
Walpole was very fond of elaborate decoration and got his influences from his trips abroad with his friends Richard West, Thomas Gray and Thomas Ashton as well as John Chute (of The Vyne). There is much of the Venetian and Islamic influence to be seen in the decorative detailing, the whole coming together to create a sort of sugar confection, a house which could have been made from icing sugar. Walpole himself describes it thus “In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury. the designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern…..But I do not mean to defend by argument a small capricious house. It was built to my own taste, and in sole degree to realize my own vision.”
Gilded ceiling in the ‘Royal’ Bedroom (this is original to the late 1700’s and is not restored).
Restored gilding around door surround and replica silk damask wall covering in the ‘Royal’ bedroom
Although there is very little furniture in the house (Walpole’s own belongings having been sold off in a sale by Lady Waldegrave and her second husband in the mid 1800’s) the standard and quality of the refurbished house is simply stunning and to add furniture would, I think detract from the visitors enjoyment of this.
The Gallery, a formerly a place of entertaining and dancing. The floor was added in the 19th century by the new owner, Lady Waldegrave.
The Saracens head which is part of the coat of arms of the Walpole family
Another Saracens head, this time as a decoration on a fireplace
Even the information room is ornate!
Painted and stained glass is everywhere at Strawberry Hill and the quality is stunning
A simpler coloured glass decoration treatment to a window
Fragments of the original hand painted wallpaper covering is located in a cupboard in what is now called The Discovery Room
Attention to detail where even the smallest door knob is enamelled and gilded
This year there is an art installation throughout the house and in the grounds by the UK artist Laura Ford. Her work has a fairy-tale quality which is both amusing and also disturbing, so fitting well in the house at Strawberry Hill. The sculptures, anthropomorphic creatures which have been inspired by the history and atmosphere at Strawberry Hill, responding to a particular room or architectural detailing.
Old Nick sits on guard between the old part of the house and the new
One of two Weeping Girl statues in the Priors garden at the front of the house
In Rememberence, a ceramic donkey in a jumper stands forlornly atop a fire place
Days of Judgement (Cats I -VII) a group of contemplative cats stride around the grounds
Dancing Clog Girls
Headthinker VIII (my favourite sculpture) slumps over books at Walpole’s desk
Strawberry Hill is a quirky house built by a true one-off. I can see it would not be to everyone’s taste and in fact could very easily be seen as being the height of poor taste in it’s obvious ostentation. Still, it has an odd sort of charm and I could probably live in it! (That’s not to say that I intend to set about remodelling my house in the same style, as I am most definitely not!)
Strawberry Hill House is open Saturday to Thursday March to November. Admission is £12 (Gift Aid) or £6 for NT members. There is a small car park on site, but ample free on-street parking on Sundays. A small cafe serves light lunches and refreshments; the menu is cosmopolitan and the food is good, although getting someone to actually take your order can be a lengthy process. Still once this has happened the food follows quickly and is well presented.