Zombies, vampires, the undead: these are all creatures that make up for successful franchise films, and all were originally born from gothic literature. The first ever Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), was written by British author, politician and collector Horace Walpole (interestingly, his father was Britain’s first Prime Minister). The short novel in its turn was the inspiration for the highly influential books such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
As a huge fan of gothic architecture, Walpole set out to build his very own gothic ‘castle’ in Twickenham, a very popular area by the river Thames in west London, in 1747. He transformed former ordinary cottages into the famous Strawberry Hill, the inspiration for his The Castle of Otranto. It’s an understatement to say that it was an unusual building for the area. While the surrounding houses were built according to Classic traditions, Strawberry Hill House was heavily influenced by Gothic cathedrals and features winding staircases, stained-glass windows, elaborately decorated ceilings, dramatic chimney pieces, big doors and grand rooms.
One can only imagine what Walpole’s neighbours thought of this extraordinary building. Judging from the house and his legacy, Walpole must have been the Liberace of his time.
Even in Walpole’s days, Strawberry Hill was a popular attraction. After a £9 million restoration, the castle is once again open to the public. I visited Strawberry Hill last summer, but am curious to see what the house looks like during the dark ‘haunted’ months of the year. Fortunately, the house now admits more than four visitors a day and even admits children, unlike in Walpole’s days.
For those of you who don’t know me personally: I am a straight up nerd and proud of it! I still have my uni notes from many many years ago which comes in handy for this post, as now I can tell you that it was on 16 November 1998 that we discussed ‘The Gothic’ in general and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in particular in professor Peter de Voogd‘s class ‘Hypertext’ at Utrecht University. It was in this class that I first heard the verb ‘to swoon’ in the professor’s great line that I’ve never forgotten ever since:
In gothic novels women don’t faint, but they swoon”
Smelling salts were always at hand to help return the fainted ladies back to consciousness.
From my uni notes that November day:
Gothic and Classic distinguish styles and tendencies in art and literature. The Gothic originally referred to the Germanic tribe of the Goths, but gradually became to denote ‘medieval’, especially in architecture. Gothic implies vital, primitive but irregular work, with the qualities of the barbarian North. Classic implies lucid, rational and idealised work as in the sunlit civilisations of Greece and Rome.
The term ‘Gothic’ is connected with the sublime, which stands for the idea that is associated with religious awe, vastness, natural magnificence and strong emotion. In literature ‘the Gothic’ stands for the genre of ‘novel of horror’. It was often criticised or even dismissed for its sensationalism, flat characters, overly melodramatic qualities and utterly predictable plots.
Imagine what an amazing day it was for my inner nerd to visit Strawberry Hill in real life! As you can see I took many photos that day…
You enter the house via the Hall where you see the dramatic staircase with a balustrade decorated with antelopes holding shields (as they do). Bits of the original wallpaper painted with gothic arches have been restored. The design was inspired by prince Arthur’s tomb in Worcester cathedral. The Gothic lantern in the well of the staircase is the only light point in the hall.
Dramatic stained-glass windows
Judging from the windows, it’s clear Walpole was a fan of cathedral-style windows: it will take you while to count all the stained-glass windows in the house. Here’s me admiring a few from up close.
There are even a few Dutch panes, here’s a detail of one of them. My visit to the house got even more exciting for me when I saw Dutch text 😉
Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see more photos of stained-glass windows.
And a painting of a ship with a Dutch flag (I know, I’m pathetic…)
All that glitter and gold
Strawberry Hill isn’t an old dark damp castle. As you can see there’s lots of light pouring in from the many windows and the excessive use of gold-coloured paint certainly brightens up the place. You can find the painting of the Dutch ship in the photo above in this rather eccentric gallery room with its eye-catching ceiling.
More painted gothic arches, here painted in gold on the grand doors.
The library at Strawberry Hill House is the first and most famous gothic library. Walpole took inspiration from St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey for the chimney and arched bookcases.
In the photo below you see the Round Room, quite a spectacular space to see in real life.
The Holbein Chamber in the photo below is part of the house that was originally used for socialising and entertaining guests rather than private use. The ceiling is based on the Queen’s dressing room at Windsor Castle. The fireplace is based on an Archbishop’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.
Writing and press printing
The room in the photo below was right next to Walpole’s bedchamber where he one night woke up from a dream and imagined he saw a giant armoured fist on the staircase. This was the inspiration for his gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.
In 1757 Walpole founded the Strawberry Hill Press, which is the most famous early private press in England. Here he produced books, pamphlets and other work. He didn’t press The Castle of Otranto here (that was printed in London), but he did press his book Description of Strawberry Hill here in 1784. This visitor’s guide book serves as the basis for the booklet you receive when you visit the house now.
When Walpole created his landscaped gardens in 1747 he had a beautiful view from there over the river Thames. Nowadays that view is interrupted by other houses and woodland, but it’s still a lovely and tranquil green space. The Strawberry Hill House Trust encourages visitors to spend some time in the gardens as well when visiting the house.
During your visit you will see lots of contemporary art throughout the house, either commissioned artworks or works made by visiting schools.
When I visited the house, there were some artworks by Laura Ford on display. In the photos below you see on the left Glory Glory, quite a sinister figure dressed in a white mask, army hat and life jacket, holding a white teddy bear.
The giant-sized cat-like creatures are bronze sculptures called Days of Judgment.
Even if you’re not a nerd like me, I highly recommend to visit Strawberry Hill House. It’s an extraordinary piece of architecture with a curious history. There are many more rooms and details to discover than I captured here in the photos and the stories behind the design and usage of the spaces are really fascinating. Take for instance his special room called ‘The Tribune’ that he had built to store and display his most valuable possessions. He was extremely proud of this room, but only granted access to it to a select few. Less fortunate souls were only allowed to look into the room through a fence.
The house has only re-opened last year after an extensive restoration. Check out their website for up-to-date admission prices and hours.
It’s a great way to explore an area in London you wouldn’t necessarily visit as a tourist, but it’s actually really beautiful with lots of green just by the river Thames.
Drop me a message if you’ve been to the house. I’m curious to know what you thought of it!