Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford was an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician. He is now largely remembered for Strawberry Hill, the home he built in Twickenham, south-west London where he revived the Gothic style some decades before his Victorian successors, and for his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Along with the book, his literary reputation rests on his Letters, which are of significant social and political interest.
Horatio Walpole, known as Horace, was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister. In 1741, after spending two years on the Grand Tour, Walpole became a Whig MP. He was a prolific letter writer and author of a Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), as well as an antiquarian and collector. He became 4th Earl of Orford in 1791 on the death of his nephew.
The First Horror Novel – The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto is a 1764 novel by Horace Walpole. It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, containing classic elements such as madness, unseen violence, supernatural events, melodrama, sexual perversion, and so on. The book tells the story of Manfred, an usurpator, who is about to marry his sickly son to the princess Isabella in a quest to secure his claim to the throne. However as Manfred tries to marry Princess Isabella, she escapes to a church and a number of supernatural events stand in his way.
The book is written in a very Shakespearian style, in the preface to the second edition of Otranto, Walpole praises “Shakespeare as a truly original genius and the exemplar of imaginative liberty, as a part of a defense of Otranto’s design”.
The Castle of Otranto had the same effect as some contemporary books (Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey), altough badly written, it captured the public imagination and spawned an entire movement. H.P. Lovecraft described it as: “tedious, artificial, and melodramatic.”
Strawberry Hill – Horace Walpole’s Gothic castle – a Regency History guide
Where is it?
Strawberry Hill is a Gothic castle in Twickenham in London created by Horace Walpole.
The creation of Strawberry Hill
Strawberry Hill and the story of Horace Walpole and the extraordinary gothic revival house he created on the banks of the Thames in Twickenham during the mid-eighteenth are on Strawberry Hill House homepage as follows “Created by Horace Walpole in the 18th century, Strawberry Hill is internationally famous as Britain’s finest example of Georgian Gothic revival architecture. It also inspired the first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto”
In 1747, Horace Walpole took out a lease on a house in Twickenham, not far from the River Thames. Known locally as Chopped Straw Hall, Walpole renamed it Strawberry Hill after discovering a reference to the name in an old lease. He bought the property in 1749 and embarked on an ambitious building project to transform Strawberry Hill into a model of Gothic architecture.
The original property consisted of two buildings joined together. Walpole delighted in their lack of symmetry and used them as the core of his new house. With the help of a committee of friends including John Chute, an architect and the owner of The Vyne in Hampshire, and Richard Bentley, an illustrator, Walpole designed his fairytale castle.
He clad the outside of the original buildings and added battlements and pinnacles. Internally, he added chimney places and bookcases, stained glass windows and intricate ceiling and wall designs. His aim was to create a route through his house where the visitor was constantly surprised, with gloomy areas leading into bright open spaces.
Strawberry Hill as a tourist attraction
Walpole created Strawberry Hill as his Gothic summer house and filled its rooms with his collections of art, books and antiquities. The aristocracy flocked to see his fairytale castle and its famous collections. Walpole showed round some visitors, but others were taken round by his housekeeper who expected a guinea from each person for the trouble.
Walpole wrote A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex, an illustrated guide to Strawberry Hill, and printed it on his own printing press. However, he seldom gave copies out as he feared that visitors would never leave if they sought to see everything in the book!
Frontispiece to A Description of the Villa at Strawberry Hill
In The Description he hoped that “the prospect would recall the good humour of those who might be disposed to condemn the fantastic fabric, and to think it a very proper habitation of, as it is, the scene that inspired, the author of the Castle of Otranto”.
By 1774, Walpole had introduced a ticketed system. Tours were only available from 1 May to 1 October and he only allowed a maximum of four visitors per day. Children were expressly prohibited!
On Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill passed to his cousin, the sculptor Mrs Anne Seymour Damer, for life. She lived there until 1811 when she gave the house up because she found it too expensive to maintain.
The house then passed to Walpole’s great niece, Lady Elizabeth Waldegrave, widow of the 4th Earl Waldegrave. Lady Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of Maria, Countess Waldegrave, later Duchess of Gloucester, by her first marriage. Maria was the illegitimate daughter of Walpole’s brother Edward.
Left to rot
Two generations later, Lady Elizabeth’s grandson, George, 7th Earl Waldegrave, was sent to prison for riotous behaviour, and he blamed the Twickenham justice system for convicting him. In 1842, he took his revenge on Twickenham by auctioning off all Walpole’s collections and leaving the house empty to decay.
A new lease of life
After George’s death, his widow, Frances, restored and lived at Strawberry Hill. In 1923, the property was bought to house what is now St Mary’s University College. In 2007, the College leased the property to the Strawberry Hill Trust and renovation work began. It reopened to the public in 2010.
What can you see today?
The Gothic façade of Strawberry Hill, restored to its white magnificence.
The Entrance Hall – Described by Walpole as “the most particular and chief beauty of the Castle”. (2) The staircase was inspired by the library staircase at Rouen Cathedral.
The Great Parlour – In Walpole’s time, the famous painting of Walpole’s three nieces, The Ladies Waldegrave, by Sir Joshua Reynolds would have hung opposite the fireplace. The original Gothic fireplace has been restored; the chairs are replicas.
The Gallery – The fan-vaulted ceiling is made of papier mâché. The brilliance of the restored gilding in this room is breathtaking!
The Tribune – This room is square with semi-circular recesses in each side. Walpole kept the most valuable part of his collections here including a cabinet containing his precious collection of miniatures.
The Round Drawing Room – The fireplace was inspired by the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey and “improved” by Robert Adam. Adam also designed the frieze round the walls.
(1) From the preface to A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex (1774).
(2) In a letter from Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann reported in The Gentleman’s Magazine (April 1834).
Sources used include:
Iddon, John, Strawberry Hill and Horace Walpole, Essential Guide (2011, Strawberry Hill Trust)
Walpole, Horace, The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford, in 5 volumes (1798)