I took a quick drive down to Horace Walpole’s summer house yesterday afternoon. It’s near Twickenham, by the Thames. The 18C gothic revival building re-opened on 2 October, having completed Phase 1 of a £8.9 million refurbishment. The place is literally still a building site, but it matters not one bit. There is plenty of completed work to enjoy and admire. Wandering around the rooms among toiling builders, carpenters and decorators with the smell of fresh paint in your nostrils gives you the satisfying feeling of somehow being personally involved in the restoration process. In addition, you get the opportunity to inspect layers of wallpaper down the years, old exposed brickwork, plaster and so on. Without a doubt, the building will be absolutely magnificent when restoration is finally complete.
Walpole, youngest son of prime minister Robert Walpole, purchased a house on the site in 1748. He demolished some cottages around the back and proceeded to extend the and decorate the building in an assymetrical aspect, furnishing it with carefully selected items as he went. Over the years, he took great delight in showing off his creation to friends and guests. A pioneer of gothic revival, Walpole deliberately broke with the recent Palladian taste, and indeed wrote what is considered the first “gothic novel”, The Castle of Otranto. In fact, such was his literary output, he had his own printing press which he used to publish his own guide book to Strawberry Hill in 1784.
It will look, I fear, a little like arrogance in a private man to give a printed description of his villa and collection, in which everything is diminutive. It is not, however, intended for public sale, and originally was meant only to assist those who should visit the place.
Walpole’s will specifically stipulated that the house and contents were not to be separated. Unfortunately, this eventually went by the way and the contents were auctioned off in 1842. The trustees of Strawberry Hill House are hoping to recover much of this under loan and are being supported by the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, who own substantial parts of the collection.