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Walpole kick-starts the Gothic revival in domestic architecture

As one of the group of Thames-side villas that survive from the 18th Century, Strawberry Hill’s significance in architectural style, political history and connections to the life of Horace Walpole is compelling.

Strawberry Hill once enjoyed fine views down to the River Thames in West London. It stands out even among the other eighteenth century villas with its turrets, decorated chimneys, asymmetry and eclectic Gothic eccentricities and is in stark contrast to the restrained and classical Palladian style that was so widespread and fashionable at the time. Its proximity to central London and its spectacular collections made it a popular visitor attraction.

Horace Walpole was one of the greatest tastemakers of eighteenth century Britain, and the Gothic Revival style he introduced and promoted soon superseded Palladianism. He transformed the existing house, locally known as ‘Chopped-Straw Hall’ between 1748 and 1790 with the help of several architects including John Chute and Robert Adam.

They let their imagination run riot not only in the design of the building, but also in the materials used for construction.

 

John Carter watercolour of hall at Strawberry Hill

Man of letters

The resulting villa was intended as a showroom for Walpole’s extensive and idiosyncratic collection of artefacts and antiquities, collected throughout his vast travels.

Watercolour of the exterior of Strawberry Hill

He was influential not only in artistic spheres, but also in literary and political circles. Many dignitaries and society figures of the time were entertained under his papier mâché vaulted ceilings and people would travel long distances to see his extensive collections as well as to admire his eccentric house.

Other than his letters, Walpole also established the first private printing press at Strawberry Hill in 1757 where he published important historical texts and his own writings. His most famous work was the first Gothic horror novel – ‘The Castle of Otranto’.

After Walpole

After subsequent owners, in the nineteenth century the house passed into the possession of Lady Frances Waldegrave. She hosted many lavish political and social gatherings here. Sadly most of the contents of the house were sold in the ‘Great Sale’ of 1842 which lasted a remarkable 32 days, and Walpole’s possessions are now spread all over the globe.

The house’s most recent occupiers, St Mary’s College effectively saved the building from destruction, by purchasing it at a time when its public appreciation was at a low point. The Strawberry Hill Trust (founded in 2002) has since been working tirelessly to protect Walpole’s creation.