Liveryman Susan Griffin
Marketors events are often unusual and always intriguing and our visit to Strawberry Hill House on Thursday 7 February was both. The dark and gloomy winter evening was fitting weather for our visit to the castle, which itself was responsible for creating the Gothic revival style.
We experienced a once-in-a-lifetime experience as Horace Walpole’s unique collection was back for the first time since it was dispersed in 1842, and we were able to experience the House as Walpole conceived it.
Horace Walpole, son of the first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, bought two small cottages in 1747 known locally as Chopp’d Straw Hall, and renamed them Strawberry Hill House. Over the next 40 years Walpole created his summer villa, conceived as “the castle of my ancestors”. It was a place to showcase his collection of paintings, antiquities and curios, and attracted a stream of visitors paying the housekeeper one guinea a time. By his death in 1797 the estate had grown to 46 acres, the House painted in a brilliant white lime wash had turrets, pinnacles and gothic windows. The inside of the House is designed as a remarkable mood journey, through rooms of grey, purple, scarlet and gold; each one seemingly surpassing the previous.
To Walpole the provenance of the pieces in his collection was important. We saw this in the first room; the gloomy grey hallway where the painted wallpaper creates the feeling of a medieval stone hall. In it are two pieces, a walnut chair owned by one of the signatories of Guy Fawkes’s death warrant, and a large blue and white Chinese bowl. This had been used as a goldfish tub and in which Walpole’s cat had unfortunately drowned, inspiring Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of a favourite Cat.
We progressed through the great parlour, where portraits of close family members hang, to the Library, the centre of Walpole’s activities as a collector. This most gothic of all the rooms celebrates his family’s medieval ancestry; the ceiling shows heraldry and charging knights, the bookcases are based on a doorway in St Paul’s cathedral and the chimney pieces modelled on two royal tombs. The Holbein Chamber was modelled on the reign of Henry VIII with Tudor royal purple walls, the ceiling copied from one in Windsor Castle and the chimney piece inspired by the tomb of Henry VIII’s last catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.
The showpiece of the castle is the spectacular Gallery designed for entertaining. As Walpole said “Well! but I begin to be ashamed of my magnificence; Strawberry is growing sumptuous in its latter day”. The Gothic white and gold vaulted ceiling was copied from Westminster Abbey and on the red Damask walls hang some of his finest paintings.
The House is a monument to Walpole, the collector. Most impressive is a clock given to Anne Boleyn by Henry VIII on their wedding day, subsequently bought by Queen Victoria in the 1842 sale and on loan from the Royal Collection. Other strange artefacts included Cardinal Wolsey’s hat and a lock of hair from Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor.
At the end of our tour, astonished by the uniqueness and strangeness of some of the collection we were happy to enjoy wine, canapés and fellowship.