Strawberry Hill, the last time I passed it, was covered with scaffolding, and although it is now open to the public it still has many of the trappings of a building site.
Horace Walpole was a little, shall we say, eccentric – how else to describe someone who would occasionally wear a limewood cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons?; and also, in an age when effeminacy in men was normal, he was renowned for his excessive effeminacy. He was the youngest son of Robert Walpole (the first Prime Minister of Britain), and was a particularly well-off young man. He found an undeveloped site in fashionable Twickenham in 1747 and acquired the leasehold, and subsequently the freehold, of the small house called Chopped-Straw Hall, which formed the nucleus of his development of a “little Gothic castle”.
After his death in 1797 the house was left to the daughter of his cousin, and then in 1811 it passed to the Waldegrave family. Walpole’s will had stipulated that the contents should remain with the house, but in 1842 the seventh Earl Waldegrave was sentenced to six months in Newgate Prison for riotous behaviour (i.e. drunken assault on a policeman). Blaming the Twickenham magistrates, and being in debt he decided to sell Walpole’s collection. There was a massive sale which lasted for 32 days, with a temporary building erected in the garden, and being served by special boats on the Thames. The contents were dispersed, although much has now been collected together at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale.
Earlier in the year there was an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (in conjunction with the Lewis Walpole collection), and the house was supposed to open to the public to coincide with this. Unfortunately, more structural work was required than had been anticipated, and so the opening was delayed until this month. Even now, the front still resembles a building site, there is a little scaffolding remaining, high-visibility jackets are still on view, and work is still ongoing on the interior, particularly in the Tribune, Great North Bedchamber, and Beauclerc Closet, which are not yet accessible. And everywhere inside smells of fresh paint.
It was particularly interesting to visit while it’s still not quite finished, and seeing some of the carpentry and gilding in progress. Reception is in a small shop, adjoining a room labelled ‘bookshop coming soon’ and which is in the throes of decoration. I produced my prebooked timed ticket, and after a short video presentation on the restoration, and the donning of plastic overshoes, the wander round the rooms was much less crowded than I had expected.
Some of the most memorable things were, I think, the painted glass in many of the windows – a pretty random collection including in the Refectory or Great Parlour, ‘one ridiculous Dutch piece representing the triumph of Fame who is accompanied by Cato, Cicero and other great men, in square caps and gowns of masters of arts’* and ‘another pane is painted with a cobbler whistling to a bird in a cage’*.
The Gallery, ‘fifty-six foot long and seventeen high, and thirteen wide without the five recesses*’ is still being regilded, and carpenters haven’t finished their work yet, but the walls have been hung with a copy of the original crimson damask – as they have in the Round Drawing Room. [*Quoted from Walpole’s Description of Strawberry Hill]
I momentarily misunderstood the room steward in the latter room, as I thought that she meant that a closed door had been used by Alexander Pope – she meant Benedict, and I didn’t hear that she said the Pope (he visited St Mary’s University College, owners of the freehold, last month).
The Library is rather special – no books now, but they were ‘ranged within Gothic arches of pierced work’ , and the doorway is angled so that the bookcases are not disarranged, while the doorway is symmetrical in the outside landing.
The Holbein Chamber has purple walls, and a screen with pierced arches, behind which was a bed beside which was hung Cardinal Wolseley’s hat (this, among many other items from the house, was displayed in the V&A exhibition). There’s a screen with a view from the chamber in 1792, here compared with the view this afternoon.
But perhaps the most memorable thing was seeing the staircase: I waked one morning at the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour.
The inspiration for The Castle of Otranto – which, if you haven’t read it, is the original gothic novel, which was the inspiration for all that gothic fiction of Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and all the horror that has come since, as well as having been spoofed in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. At the time it was written the reading of it caused many a sleepless night, but nowadays it’s more likely to produce the odd chortle.
After the tour through the house’s ‘gloomth’ the route takes you out to the tearoom, which is situated in the Great Cloister, its gothic arches now glazed; unfortunately they had been forced to stop serving due to a plumbing problem, and I needed lunch, so it was a walk back through Twickenham to Orleans House Gallery where the tearoom is run by the same local company, Karmarama.
Rather than walk down the road all the way, I walked through Radnor Gardens, from where, because of the curve of the river, there is a good view of the rear of Pope’s Villa; there is also Twickenham’s War Memorial designed by Mortimer Brown and erected in 1921. A happy, waving soldier (no shell-shock depicted here) stands atop the plinth, of which three sides commemorate other services – the air force, the navy, and the third has women – a nurse and what looks like a messenger. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen women on a First World War memorial before – I’d be interested to hear of any others.
Past the centre of Twickenham and back along the river, past York House Gardens, whence looming over the wall are some 200-year-old Italian marble sculptures, representing Ocean and sea nymphs. They have a slightly involved history, having been brought to England by Whitaker Wright, a financier, but he was found guilty of fraud and died suddenly in 1904. Still in their packing cases, they were brought to Twickenham in 1909 and arranged in the grounds of York House, then owned by Sir Ratan Tata, philanthropist and Indian merchant prince, who had been knighted by George V. After his untimely death at the age of 47 in 1918, his wife decided to return to India and sold the house to the local Council; the statues weren’t included in the sale apparently, but were left them behind, so here they still are, restorations having been undertaken in the 1980s and in 2007.
The café at Orleans House is in the old stables, with outside seating (although today was rather dull and overcast it was also rather mild). A rather large mozzarella, tomato & basil panino was followed by fruit crumble, and accompanied by a pot of tea that almost required two hands to lift it. The food was good value, too, especially as it was sufficiently filling that I need no dinner this evening.
Orleans House is named after its most famous occupant, Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, who lived here between 1815 and 1817, and who subsequently became the last King of France.
The main gallery’s exhibition is currently (and until 23 January 2011) Making It/Faking It, exploring ‘how and why contemporary artists approach famous artworks‘, questioning notions of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’, and copying or quoting masterpieces. Some of the works were rather mediocre, many were very good, and a few were astonishingly good.
The gallery has a rather splendid Octagon Room, described by Defoe as “a pleasant room joining the greenhouse”, which was designed by James Gibbs, built in 1721 and used as a garden pavilion for entertaining guests. The baroque interior was decorated by Guiseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti, who were the best stuccatore working in England at the time. However, Orleans House is licensed to conduct weddings, and there was one underway in there this afternoon, so the Octagon Room was closed.
One reason to come back another day – I want to see Strawberry Hill House again in the spring, when the decorating and gilding are finished, the carpets are down, and there will perhaps be a bit more furniture in the rooms. In the meantime I shall be able to remind myself with the book that accompanied the exhibition at the V&A, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, edited by Michael Snodin. And apologies if I repeated myself from my earlier post on Walpole and Strawberry Hill.