Strawberry Hill House, the Neo-Gothic manor built by Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797) over several decades, is once again open to the public, with the first phase of an extensive £8.9 million restoration now complete (see bottom of page for a video summary).
Horace Walpole was an antiquarian, politician, author and art historian. His father was Robert Walpole (1676 – 1745), the first Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Eschewing the contemporary Classical style of architecture in favour of a homage to Gothic cathedrals of the past, Walpole kick-started a new fashion for Gothic architecture and literature, which foreshadowed such influential works as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Walpole welcomed tourists to Strawberry Hill House (four a day were allowed, but strictly no children), as well as entertaining foreign dignitaries and the aristocracy.
In a vision or a dream one night, Walpole imagined he saw a giant armoured fist on the staircase, and this inspired his first Gothic novel in 1764, The Castle of Otranto.
Here is a taste of the novel’s melodramatic style:
“At those worse he seized the cold hand of Isabella, who was half-dead with fright and horror. She shrieked, and started from him. Manfred rose to pursue her; when the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at theopposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner, and accompanied with a hollow and rustling sound. Isabella, who gathered courage from the situation, and who dreaded nothing so much as Manfred’s pursuit of his declaration, cried, Look, my lord! see heaven itself declares against your impious intentions! – Heaven nor hell shall impede my designs, said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast. Isabella, whose back was turned to the picture, saw not the motion, nor knew whence the sound came, but started and said, Hark my lord! what sound was that? and at the same time made towards the door. Manfred, distracted between the flight of Isabella, who had now reached the stairs, and his inability to keep his eyes from the picture, which began to move, had however advanced some steps after her, still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its pannel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air.”
Walpole is also famous for his Letters, which may be downloaded free here.
Upon arrival at Strawberry Hill House, you will be directed to a small room where a video presentation plays on continuous loop, introducing visitors to the house, its history and the recent renovations. Here, visitors will have to fit protective booties over their shoes, before they are allowed to wander any further (ladies would do well to leave high heels at home).
As well as a cafe and gift shop, the house has a small museum display area on the ground level, where you will find more information and memorabilia associated with Horace Walpole and the history of the house.
It may be at least several more months before the entire house is finished – on the day we visited, work was still in progress in the grand Gallery Room, somewhat spoiling the grand proportions and photographic potential of the space. Only with a tight crop of the roof decoration, were we able to avoid getting the workman and his tools in shot (below).
The gardens are free to wander in, but there is an entry fee to the house – staff prefer advance bookings online or by phone. Happily, photography inside the house is allowed. Strawberry Hill House also holds regular events and activities – click here for the events page.
There are buses that will deliver you almost to the front door of the house, but if you have the time, it is very pleasant to start at Richmond and take the winding Thameside path. This will take you past Marble Hill House, Orleans House Gallery with its Octagon Room, and many other pretty vistas (below).
Photos by Sven Klinge
(please credit photographer & website when using these photos)
- Horace Walpole and His World: Selected Passages From His Letters by Horace Walpole
- Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle by Anna Chalcraft
- Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill by Michael Snodin
(Portrait of Horace Walpole courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)