I will build a castle.

(Horace Walpole)

One summer morning in 1764 Horace Walpole woke up from a vivid dream and sat down at his desk – as he often did - to write. On Christmas eve of the same year the novel inspired by this dream was published as The Castle of Otranto. At first Walpole hid behind a pseudonym and pretended the work was the translation of a 16th century Italian manuscript. Encouraged by the favourable reception of the novel, in the preface to the second edition Walpole admitted authorship, only to have the work dismissed by critics as “romantic fiction” (a derisory term at the time). The history of literature has however vindicated Walpole, hailing him as the creator of gothic fiction – a genre that is still enjoying some popularity.

The Castle of Otranto was written in a castle. Strawberry Hill House began its life as a simple riverside villa, “a small capricious house” as Walpole modestly referred to it in its visitors’ guidebook, yet was soon transformed by him into a medieval castle. In building the first gothic style house designed to be lived in, Horace Walpole was ahead of his time; the Gothic Revival as an architectural style became a trend much later, with the stately homes and public building of 19th century England and US.

Gargoyles and Flying Buttresses

The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

It took a lot of labour, skill, faith and wealth to build the great cathedrals of the 12th to 15th century. And a relatively long period of peace. Western Europe changed from a series of isolated conurbations to a rich network of towns and cities, connected by (Roman built) roads. Travellers and pilgrims used them frequently, allowing for ideas and goods to move between civilisations. The great Gothic cathedrals (Rheims, Milan, York) were built in the style prevalent in Western Europe at that time: rib vaults, flying buttresses, arches pointing skywards to infinity and beyond. We travel to visit them and look upwards in awe, wondering how such wonders could be built with the engineering knowledge and the technology available 700 years ago. The Gothic revival movement, not yet born at the time Walpole extended and decorated Strawberry Hill, borrowed mainly the ornamental elements of the style: the pointed arches, the steep sloping roofs, the tracery, the stained glass.

It is possible that Walpole’s taste for the medieval stemmed from his interest in romantic literature, the nostalgia for medieval times and the love of stories set in these times. But it is likely that it was inspired by his love of the theatrical: creating a stage at Strawberry Hill, a make-believe, decorating it and dressing up as a medieval knight.

Horace Walpole was a gentleman: the third son of the first prime minister, he did not inherit land but was given a job as an MP (for Callington, which he never visited). For a gentleman (i.e. a person of private means) it was somewhat compulsory to own another residence, in addition to his London classic townhouse. Fashionable Twickenham in West London provided an ideal setting, being located on the South bank of the river Thames, only a few hours by boat (and a short two-hour carriage trip) from London. Hampton Court and Richmond Palace were within reflected glamour distance. What was originally a coachman’s cottage and Walpole’s plaything, purchased from a seller of trinkets, came to represent – thanks to its owner’s imagination and ambition – a culturally and historically significant building. As time and finances allowed, Walpole added extensions to the house (as he extended his collection of art and things) achieving the asymmetry and unpredictability so admired by the gothic revivalists.

Paper Castle

Lord God! Jesus! What a House! cried Lady Townsend during an early visit to Strawberry Hill House – and it is not clear if this was intended as a compliment. Today’s visitor getting a first glance from the road, may similarly exclaim, surprised at the sight of brilliant white towers and turrets, raising from among the trees like a suburban Disneyworld. Unlike the medieval cathedrals that inspired it, Strawberry Hill is not build of limestone or bricks. The towers, battlements, spires and arched windows that remind of the solid Gothic buildings are in fact made of plaster and wooden boards, moulded and painted to look like stone. An entertaining, conjuring trick to amuse the steady stream of visitors.

Inside the house, staircases copied from Rouen Cathedral, a ceiling inspired by the Queen’s dressing room at Windsor Castle – but made of papier-mâché; “my buildings, like my writings are of paper” admitted Walpole.

The small entrance hall on the ground floor is an appropriate introduction to Walpole’s eccentric taste. It is dark and monochrome, covered with gothic motif wallpaper. The light comes from a small arched window and mainly from the lanterns on the staircase, illustrating the concept of “gloomth”, invented by Walpole to designate a combination of gloom and warmth – the gloomy warmth we experience as we move from the darkness of the hall and up the staircase, illuminated by a single gothic lantern (without this word, we would just call it gloomy). The “gloomth” is recreated elsewhere in the castle, where dark and narrow passageways open unexpectedly into the light.

The most Gothic room is the library. Designed by Walpole’s friend and amateur architect/decorator John Chute, it features arched bookcases, divided by pinnacled pillars that go all round the room; above that there were family portraits and on the intricately painted ceiling with the arms and shields of his ancestors. Walpole wanted to indicate that his family was descended from the Crusaders – they were not.

Collector, Printer, Joker

Horace Walpole was also a collector of pictures, miniatures, china, antiquities, portraits, furniture, objets d’art and curiosities – such as Cardinal Wolsey’s hat. In the Green Closet, a small room with dual view of the garden and the river, the unusual green with brown flock wallpaper would have been covered by no less than 141 pictures. The rest of his treasures were displayed in a fine rosewood cabinet in the Tribune – built specifically to house his valuable miniatures. Specially privileged guests were invited to view the collection through the grilled door. He also collected “dear friends” – men of reliable taste and culture, but of a lesser social background – the most famous among them Thomas Grey, whose poetry he published at the Printing press (Officina Arbuteana) at Strawberry Hill.

The House was visited often, by many friends and acquaintances; invited guests who came to admire the quirky architecture and riant (pleasant, cheerful) gardens were given personal tours of the collection by Walpole. The hoi polloi could visit the house for a guinea and make do with the housekeeper as a guide. There was so much interest that Walpole has to limit the number of visitors and printed a written guide.

Mantelpieces made of wood imitating marble, papier-mâché friezes, bookcases copied from the tombs of medieval kings, a Holbein chamber reminiscent of the court of Henry VIII – was this recreation of the irregularity and solemnity of Gothic a pretentious pastiche or a theatrical display, a stage on which Horace Walpole wanted to play the central role, for the amusement of his friends?

It was built to please my own taste, and in sole degree to realize my own vision.

(Horace Walpole)