Back in March, Strawberry Hill opened its doors to visitors for the first time in decades after a £10 million restoration project that has brought Horace Walpole’s marvellous folly back to (most) of its former glory. Yesterday I was able to make my own pilgrimage to the birthplace of neo-gothic. It is hard to believe that Strawberry Hill still survives – it is the sort of place, like William Beckford’s Fonthill, that feels like it ought to have been consigned to oblivion long ago just on the grounds of sheer improbability; the product of one man’s eccentric imagination rather than something bequeathed to future generations. It comes as something of a surprise to find that it exists in reality. But of course that is exactly how Walpole wanted you to feel. Strawberry Hill is the original fake, which spawned a late eighteenth-century genre of faux gothic architecture and decorative arts that still bears its name: Strawberry Hill Gothick.
But Strawberry Hill is much more than just the birthplace of the gothic revival and the gothic novel (as if that isn’t enough) – it is the place where form definitively triumphed over substance, and in that sense it is one of the key birthplaces of modernity. Instead of showing visitors around an ancient house, Walpole showed visitors around a fake ancient house: he simulated antiquity, and yet at the same time he lived and gloried in the simulation. Every fantasy author, moviemaker and designer of computer games owes their livelihood to him. Without Walpole, none of us would have the pleasure of running riot in our own invented versions of the past.
Walpole’s version of Gothick architecture immediately strikes the modern visitor as naïve, superficial or both. Structurally, Strawberry Hill is much the same as every other eighteenth-century house, because none of the Gothick ornaments actually do anything; the plaster vaults and finials are just stuck on. Furthermore, the decorative features are just as likely to be borrowed from the Doge’s Palace in Venice as an English cathedral – and even then, Walpole and his friends plundered the engravings in Dugdale’s Monasticon (1655) and other antiquarian sources rather than actually copying medieval models, as later goths like Pugin and sons did so painstakingly. Strawberry Hill is an eclectic collection of architectural oddments, a single giant cabinet of curiosities in which the house itself is the principal curiosity to be admired. I was especially impressed by Robert Adam’s gothic fireplace in the Round Drawing Room – not just because Adam based it on the pilasters and marble decoration of the tomb of St Edward the Confessor (which dates from Mary’s reign), but also because Walpole was able to persuade even the supreme master of the Palladian style in England to indulge in gothic. I was also delighted to see that the Strawberry Hill Trust has been able almost to completely fill Walpole’s magnificent library with loans of books from the period – the original contents having been dispersed to America in the nineteenth century.
But this house is, of course, the place where the eighteenth-century imagination was freed to explore the dark pathways of the subconscious. Here in a second-floor bedroom Walpole awoke one morning from a fearful dream in which he saw a gigantic mailed hand resting on a dark, gothic stair – the germ from which grew the world’s first gothic and supernatural novel – The Castle of Otranto (1764). The book, just like the house, was originally delivered to the world as fake history – but it was fake history that had some resonances in Walpole’s own heritage. He reported in the preface that the manuscript of Otranto was discovered in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England, and it is noteworthy that in the Plaid Chamber next to the room in which he dreamt up the novel hung a portrait of the Jesuit Henry Walpole, which Horace had bought or inherited from the last of his Catholic relatives in 1748. Walpole believed – or chose to believe – that his Jesuit forebear had been executed for trying to poison Elizabeth I; one of many stories that Walpole seemed to just make up on the spur of the moment for his visitors (he told them that Henry VII was an impious king who mocked God, for example). The faux Catholic origins of Otranto, and Walpole’s inverted veneration of his Catholic ancestor as an interesting traitor were not the only expressions of Walpole’s ambivalent attitude to his own family’s Catholicism. In the woods he built a curious octagonal chapel and designed a frontage for it based on a chantry tomb in Salisbury Cathedral, producing a bizarre result. The chapel is still there, though no longer isolated as Walpole intended: it now faces the monstrous brick edifice of the Catholic chapel of St Mary’s University (irony enough in itself). I was lucky enough to find it open, although nothing survives in the interior from Walpole’s time apart from the vaulted roof, sadly in need of the same attention that the house itself has lately received.
Walpole’s chapel originally contained a marble holy water stoup and a medieval altarpiece, consisting of four panels depicting, on the outside, two fifteenth-century bishops: Cardinal Beaufort and John Kemp, Archbishop of York. Inside was a figure of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester in prayer, and ‘behind him a saint holding the duke’s cap of estate in one hand, and a golden chalice in the other’. There was also a fragmentary scene of the nativity, and a coat of arms which Walpole identified as Tate impaling Boleyn or Sanders. This altarpiece had belonged to the herald Peter Leneve and later his protégé Thomas Martin of Palgrave, but it came originally from the Abbey of St Edmund. The portrayals of Gloucester, Beaufort and Kemp together is intriguing, since all three men were at the Parliament in Bury St Edmunds at the time of Gloucester’s death in 1447. Sadly this precious relic of the Abbey, and of East Anglian Catholicism, no longer survives. There were many eighteenth-century gentlemen who built ‘gothick temples’ and mock-monastic ruins as follies on their estates, and some who even built chapels in the Strawberry Hill style (there is an excellent example at Audley End). Yet Walpole must have been the only one who actually integrated the trappings of Catholicism – a stoop and an altarpiece – into the design of his chapel. There is a peculiar ambivalence to Walpole’s attitude to Catholicism; he was prepared to make up a story that traduced his ancestor, yet preserved a picture of him next to his bedroom; he portrayed Catholicism as superstitious in Otranto, yet delighted in such superstition and even reproduced it in his chapel. My visit to Strawberry Hill raised more questions than it answered about Walpole’s pivotal role in eighteenth-century English culture, and in particular changing attitudes to Catholics.