Strawberry Hill - a bright, white 18th-century Gothic wonder


Strawberry Hill - a bright, white 18th-century Gothic wonder

The “little gothic castle" beside the Thames in West London that was built by Horace Walpole in the second half of the 18th century is generally regarded as having sparked the Gothic revival craze of the late 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, including the first Gothic novel.

Horace Walpole was the youngest son of the first prime minister of Great Britain Robert Walpole. Under family pressure to establish a country seat, he bought the small estate of Chopp’d Straw Hill in 1747, beside the river Thames between Twickenham and Teddington. He renamed it “Strawberry Hill,” and embarked on a decades-long project to turn the modest villa there into a medieval style castle full of “gloomth” and wonder. He called Strawberry Hill his “little plaything…the prettiest bauble you ever saw,” and set about covering it in towers, battlements, stained glass windows, spires, gold accents, and mirrors. It soon resembled an elegant, delightful, childlike perversion of medieval buildings like Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, which Walpole had studied.

The conversion completed in 1790, was notable by being created in a fairly haphazard way by Walpole and his friends, with no overall plan. Walpole added new features over a thirty-year period, as he saw fit.

Strawberry Hill became a tourist attraction during Walpole’s lifetime, before he died in 1797. A favourite spot for lovers was a particular bench in the lovely garden, which was carved like a giant Rococo sea shell. Walpole complained, rather disingenuously, about this onslaught of visitors and guests:

'I have but a minute’s time in answering your letter, my house is full of people, and has been so from the instant I breakfasted, and more are coming; in short,' he wrote, 'I keep an inn; the sign ‘The Gothic Castle’ …my whole time is passed in giving tickets for seeing it, and hiding myself when it is seen.' He concluded with the advice, 'never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court: everybody will live in it but you'.

The house also inspired what most scholars believe was the first Gothic novel. One night, Walpole was frightened awake by a nightmare. He dreamed that he had seen a giant armoured fist on the highest bannister of the grand staircase at Strawberry Hill. This vision prompted him to write The Castle of Otranto, a runaway hit said to have then inspired Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Today, Strawberry Hill is attached to St. Mary’s University, but open to the public, and still delighting and confounding visitors from all over the world.

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