I love it when museums and gardens collide, so it was a real pleasure to visit Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s ‘little Gothic castle’, for the first time the other weekend. Both house and garden (one of the first ‘naturalistic’ English gardens) have been on the receiving end of some serious restoration of late, and some of the private rooms have only recently opened to the public. If you’ve not been yet, it is a total delight and I’m delighted to be including a new entry for Strawberry Hill in the 6th edition of Museum & Galleries of London, which will be out next year. Sneak preview herewith.
Modern day visitors to Strawberry Hill follow in the footsteps of their 18th-century forebears who flocked to see the ‘little Gothic castle’ dreamed up by Horace Walpole, renowned collector, man of letters, and son of Britain’s first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. Horace’s entrepreneurial housekeeper Margaret no longer being available to show people around, visitors today are issued with an edited version of Walpole’s original guidebook to follow what is, essentially, a self-guided tour in the 18th-century manner. Friendly room stewards are on hand to answer questions and help with navigation but other than that you’re on your own, and free to admire at your own pace the extraordinary creation built by Horace as a summer villa between 1748 and 1790.
Students of architecture know Strawberry Hill as the first and finest example of Gothic revival architecture and, fresh from a multi-million pound restoration, its atmospheric interiors, landscaped garden and wedding cake white exterior (complete with tower, turret and crenellations) are looking better than they have done in many decades. The huge collection that Walpole amassed over his life to fill the house was flogged off by a spendthrift descendent in 1842 – an act of cultural vandalism but one which means that details such as the richly hued flock wallpapers, trompe l’oeil stonework, ornate fireplaces and colour-saturated stained glass are easier to digest.
Always intended as a theatrical experience, the house take visitors on a mood journey through the ‘gloomth’ of the dimly lit entrance hall and the Stygian darkness of the Star Chamber to show-stopping State Rooms such as the Gallery, with its vivid crimson walls and intricate gold papier-mâché tracery ceiling and mirrored alcoves. Room after room exercise their magic, from the medieval-inspired library, to the purple painted Holbein Chamber, where once hung Cardinal Wolsey’s red hat and the ‘golden gloom’ of The Tribune, where Walpole kept his most precious treasures.
Mr Walpole’s Bedchamber is one of the more intimate private rooms that were reopened in 2015 after restoration; it was here that Walpole had the dream that inspired him to write the first Gothic horror novel, The Castle of Otranto. There’s a copy of the book to read in The Plaid Bedchamber, while in the Dressing Room next door is a display devoted to the private printing press that Walpole set up at Strawberry Hill.
Outside the gardens have also been restored where 18th-century features such as the birch grove and Walpole’s ‘theatrical border’ have been reinstated.
The shop is well-stocked with a tasteful selection of books, gifts, toys and cards and, housed in Mr Walpole’s former Waiting Room, must surely feature one of the finest fireplaces ever to grace a museum shop. Visitors in search of refreshment will find it in the Cloister Café, a popular haunt of local residents, off duty volunteers and, on weekends, chilled-out family groups.
268 Waledgrave Road
Twickenham, TW1 4ST
020 8744 1241