Strawberry Hill House first poked its turrets into my undergraduate imagination as the birthplace of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, whose central image apparently came to him in a dream there – “of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle – and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour”. Accompanied by so many of what are now clichés of the gothic (the crumbling castle, the generational curse, the barely-dressed heroine fleeing down a tunnel as we scream don’t look back against the delicious inevitability that she will), the apparition’s fictional counterpart caps a story that seems to parody the genre even as it originates it – fanfic preceding the object of its homage. It’s almost too vivid, like an image copied and pasted over itself a million times.
The house itself has floated ever since on the fringes of my places-to-see list: intriguing, sure, but encumbered by the prospect of a weird looping overland commute from Waterloo, and the more proximate capacity of the Soane Museum to satisfy any urge I might have to wander round the imagination of an eighteenth-century polymath.
Well, it seems I’ve been missing out – because besides constituting an object lesson in the idiocy of equating Twickenham with the South Pole, the half-hour trip takes you to a riotously entertaining architectural wonderland, whose restoration matches it for hallucination-inducing attention to detail and sheer exuberant verve.
The Strawberry Hill Trust has just completed the second stage of a £10 million project to return the building to its original state. Funding has come in large part from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as private donations and other sources, and the work itself has been led by the architectural firm of Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins, probably best known for their work on Somerset House, Manchester City Art Gallery, and several conservation projects. The first phase, completed in 2010, restored 20 of the house’s grander rooms (including the State Apartment and fan-vaulted gallery); the second, which opened to the public on 1st March, has concentrated on the domestic spaces, in which Walpole actually lived.
The Strawberry Hill Sewing Bee are reproducing the upholstery and linen for the bed – a task that entails hand-knotting 31,000 minuscule tassels.
The project has been facilitated by Walpole’s own exhaustive records of his work on the house: plans, drawings and some 4,000 letters constitute what Michael Snodin, chair of the Trust, calls a “paper memory”, whose layers the restorers have mined for what seems a pretty exhaustive account of the state of each room at a certain point in its history. The place is especially intriguing when this palimpsest quality shows through, as, for example, in the central staircase, where they’ve left exposed the remaining fragments of original decoration amongst its modern reproduction.
Kevin Rogers of Inskip + Jenkins describes the approach as anastylosis: the practice of restoring or rebuilding a monument around the integrated fragments of the original, following as much as possible the techniques used to create it in the first place. As an example, take the flocked wallpaper in the Green Closet, Walpole’s private study. Linen and then rag paper were stretched over the softwood inner wall. Sheets of handmade paper were overlaid in turn, then undercoated with lead sulphate (‘Naples yellow’), followed by another coat of copper sulphate in an egg-yolk glaze. The pattern was then printed with specially cut blocks, and the flocking itself made by sprinkling over finely-cut New Hampshire wool. Pigment created with similarly exhaustive attention to detail gives a shimmering quality to the paint in the Holbein Room, whose purple walls take on spectral crimson overtones even in the diffuse light of a drizzly February lunchtime.
Across the hallway, in the best guest bedroom, a group of volunteers (the Strawberry Hill Sewing Bee, one of a number of community groups involved with the trust) are currently reproducing the upholstery and linen for the bed that occupied the room – a task that entails, amongst other things, hand-knotting 31,000 minuscule tassels.
It’s easy to see how the atmosphere these rooms create belongs in the gothic landscape as much as any moonlit cloister.
Speaking at the launch of this latest redevelopment, Snodin noted a striking contrast between the “grey, gothic” world of the public rooms, and the warmer atmosphere of this private half of the house. It’s perhaps surprising, he suggested, given the place’s reputation as the nursery of gothic fiction, that these Italianate rooms were where Walpole actually spent his time. Certainly, they carry the taste for silks and rich colour brought back by Grand Tourists to much more conventional houses of the time. But walking round them, it’s easy enough to see how the atmosphere they create belongs in the gothic landscape as much as any moonlit cloister: the perfect nook to which your tired imagined despot might retire, the long day’s glowering cruelty at an end, a pipe of something heady close at hand.
The rooms present an endless series of coups de theatre, staging the progress of a melancholy thought as it winds through the vaults of heredity and drunken introspection, finding narrative everywhere it goes. It’s almost too perfect that the original of the bed, to which Warpole would retire when suffering from gout, tanked up to the gills on opium and alcohol, and in which he dreamed this famous dream of his, was the one in which his own father died. The point here is not the projection of a solid family history, or even a faithful recreation of antiquity (much to Pugin’s disgust – and anything that disgusts Pugin is just fine by me.) All these fragments of the past are simply a menu from which the owner and his friends – the ‘Committee of Taste’ – could indulge in a riotous feast of architectural self-expression.
The gaze of the gothic tends always somehow inward, even as it glances out at forking crags and battlements, or east towards some unknown, longed-for horror. The sublime becomes the unheimlich; Twilight’s pine forests become a sex dungeon at a brownstone somewhere downtown. The private rooms at Strawberry Hill are an elaborate set on which the dreaming self can play, casting its flickering shadow onto walls as it imagines all the shapes it might have left behind, in forests and in catacombs that never quite existed.
Image credits, top to bottom:
Paul Sandby, Strawberry Hill from the Southeast.
Mr Walpole’s Bedchamber, photographer Richard Holttum
View of hall, photographer Kilian O’Sullivan
View into Red Bedchamber, photographer Kilian O’Sullivan