'Obliging Curious Persons'

The Re-opening of Strawberry Hill

A £4.9m HLF Grant has seen Horace Walpole's 'Gothick' fantasy house in Twickenham restored to its full glory. CHRIS SUMNER was there...

"Mr Walpole is very ready to oblige any curious Persons with the Sight of his House." So stated the invitation, and what better way of celebrating Mr Walpole's 293rd birthday on 24th September 2010 than by joining hundreds of guests in the marquee on the lawn at Strawberry Hill for splendid refreshments, speeches and songs, and birthday cake and toasts to mark the reopening of Horace's house after the completion of the principal phase of restoration?

Strawberry Hill House under repair in the summer of 2010
Strawberry Hill House under repair in the summer of 2010

2010 has proved to be something of an annus mirabilis for enthusiasts for London's C18 houses and gardens; the grounds of Chiswick House were reopened earlier this year after a major restoration project, and Strawberry Hill has now reopened for a short season prior to further work to the house and gardens to be carried out over the winter. Both projects are exemplars of what can be achieved through the formation of dedicated trusts, raising substantial funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources, including English Heritage and private donors and charitable trusts. Both estates - houses and grounds - were exemplars in their day and had a profound influence on British and European architecture and landscape design.

Horace Walpole (1717-97) was a generation younger than Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753). Both men had the financial means to indulge their passion for architecture and gardening and to record and promote their passion in writing and through commissioned paintings and engravings. Burlington's architectural taste was for Ancient Rome as interpreted by the C16 Italian architect Andrea Palladio and the C17 English architect Inigo Jones as the foundation of a new national style, while Walpole favoured the English Middle Ages.

The Gothic had never quite died out in England, especially for churches, and was occasionally applied decoratively to domestic buildings; but Strawberry Hill was revolutionary in two respects: the plan of the building is deliberately asymmetrical and composed for picturesque effect, and the architectural details, such as the fireplace surrounds and the Chapel in the Wood, are copied from authentic mediaeval elements. Walpole's A Description of Strawberry Hill says of the Round Drawing Room:

Hung with crimson Norwich damask; the design of the chimney-piece is taken from the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey; improved by Mr Adam and beautifully executed in white marble inlaid with scagliola by Richter. The ceiling is taken from a round window in old St Paul's.

The earnest architects of the C19 Gothic revival were infuriated by the perceived irreverence; but the lasting influence of Strawberry Hill cannot be denied and its idiosyncratic fusion of mediaeval 'gloomth' and crimson-and-gilt opulence may at last be enjoyed again following the restoration.

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 decoration is modern ... But I do not mean to defend a small capricious house. It was built to please my own taste, and in sole degree to realize my own vision.

Walpole was at least as fond of his garden as of his house, and while the once-important views to the River Thames have now been lost to building development, extensive grounds survive and work on replanting will start this winter. I shall be giving a talk as part of the LPGT Winter Lecture Series on 14th February 2011 on Strawberry Hill: The Garden Recreated, and there is to be a visit on 10th May 2011 (see Forthcoming Events Calendar for details).

For details of the restoration and of opening times see www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk.

Pinnacles of Achievement

The Gothic fantasy Strawberry Hill in West London was crowned once again when its eight picturesque pinnacles were replaced as part of its £9 million restoration at the hands of restoration builder and project contractor, E. Bowman and Sons Ltd.

Strawberry Hill, which re-opened to the public on 25th September 2010 for the run-up to Christmas, was created by historian, writer and collector, Horace Walpole, between 1747 and 1792 and is Britain's finest example of Georgian Gothic Revival architecture.

The particular design of the pinnacles was influenced by the Moorish Gothic architecture that Walpole saw in Venice in 1741 during his Grand Tour. By the mid 1920s, however, Strawberry Hill had fallen into extreme disrepair and eventually the dilapidated pinnacles were removed.

They have now been replaced thanks to the generosity of several donors via The World Monuments Fund: Dame Vivien Duffield, Peter Stormonth-Darling and The Leche Trust.

Workers from E. Bowman & Sons add the finishing touches to one of the pinnacles 
Workers from E. Bowman & Sons add the finishing touches to one of the pinnacles 

The restoration as a whole was funded by a £4.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Partnership funding includes donations by English Heritage, The Architectural Heritage Fund, The World Monuments Fund Britain and numerous charitable trusts, local societies, patrons and individuals.

The oak pinnacles have been partly constructed with the aid of modern CNC machinery and are being painted the same off-white colour as the walls. They were installed in two sections, using scaffolding, by the project's contractors E. Bowman and Sons Ltd with conservation architects Inskip + Jenkins and project managers Fanshawe LLP.

Further information from www.ebowman.co.uk