Why Strawberry Hill House is Well Worth a Visit
Created as a summer villa between 1748 and 1790, Strawberry Hill House is one of the earliest and finest examples of the Gothic Revival style.
It’s so brilliantly OTT that it’s even coined its own style; Strawberry Hill Gothic.
Just look at it. It’s almost ridiculous in its fairytale, Disney-like glory.
The Vision of Horace Walpole
Strawberry Hill House was the vision of Horace Walpole. Born in 1717, he was an MP, antiquarian, writer and collector as well as son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
Built in stages on an irregular plan, it aimed to give the impression of an ancestral castle, built by successive Walpole generations.
The house was a tourist attraction within Walpole’s own lifetime. He even printed a booklet to guide visitors around it (making sure to clarify that it’s not for public sale, “that would look like arrogance!”)
The printed booklets (complete with Walpole’s commentaries) added to the theatrical nature of the house.
Although people were encouraged to visit, it was Walpole’s strict terms. You must book in advance, in a maximum group of four and strictly no children. Occasionally Walpole might take you around the house, but usually a servant would take you on a tour.
A Dramatic Experience
Walpole specifically intended you to enter through a gloomy hall, heading to a heavy, carved staircase which provides the only light – from above – for maximum drama.
The theatre continues as you walk around the house, the whole route curated by Walpole who was working within a group calling themselves ‘The Committee of Taste’.
Perpendicular Gothic bookcases hold Walpole’s extensive collection while an elaborate painted ceiling is covered coats of arms and geometric patterns.
The Holbein Chamber
Containing dozens of copies of sketches and paintings by Hans Holbein, this room was re-painted its original purple to complement the Tudor pictures.
Walpole was an avid collector, anything unusual or with historic value was added to his eccentric collection.
A good example currently on display is his ‘Fish Bowl’. A fine piece of oriental porcelain, he used the pot to house some goldfish. However, disaster struck in 1747 when Walpole’s favourite cat Selina drowned whilst trying to catch the fish.
In true Walpole style he asked his friend, Thomas Gray, to write a poem about the incident. Published the same year it was entitled “Ode to Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes”.
Walpole never married and so the house passed into the hands of Lady Frances Waldegrave via Walpole’s Great Niece.
Lady Waldegrave was almost as eccentric as Walpole, marrying four times and becoming a renowned society hostess during the 1860s. Supposedly when she was throwing a party here, there were traffic jams of carriages all the way back to Twickenham Station.
The house stayed in the Waldegrave family until brothers John and George – through a mix of drink and gambling – lost the family fortune. Strawberry Hill was bought by Baron Hermann de Stern, a banker and 13th richest man in Britain at the time. He only had three years to enjoy it beofre he died and his son, Herbert took over.
Herbert and his wife continued the tradition of lavish parties but during the First World War they left the house, never to return. It was then used as the HQ of a Catholic Mission in the 1920s which was under St Mary’s University College by the 1990s. In 2004 the house was on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register and since 2007 an independent trust has managed the building. The former accommodation block is still part of St Mary’s University.
The Breakfast Room
In certain rooms you can really see the successive changes from different owners, reflecting the change in tastes and style. The Breakfast room was transformed into a Turkish-style Boudoir by Lady Waldegrave.
Further interior treats include The Tribune, a pale green room that feels like a private chapel.
“The roof is terminated by a star of yellow glass that throws a golden gloom over the room, and with the painted windows gives the solemn air of a rich chapel.” – Horace Walpole
Then the Round Drawing Room, originally intended as a bedroom, with a decorative ceiling inspired by the rose winder of the Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
But the real showstopper comes at the end…
The ceiling, with elaborate fan vaulting is based on Westminster Abbey’s Henry VII chapel, built in the 1520s.
Walpole, not know for his modesty, stated that;
“I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence.”
And really, can you blame him? It’s an extraordinary room and one of many reasons to visit Strawberry Hill House.
Visiting Strawberry Hill House
Strawberry Hill House is open Sunday – Wednesday, 11am-4pm and the garden and cafe (free entry) are open Sunday – Thursday 10am-4pm. Find the latest times and prices on their website here.