Walpole's newly restored Gothic fantasy to open to public
It's 1747, George II is King, the Renaissance in England has moved on to Baroque (Sir John Vanbrugh's Blenheim Palace is just 20 years old) and the classical (Lord Burlington's neo-Palladian remodelling of Burlington House
was completed in 1725). The Gothic is not in fashion. Yet in fashionable eighteenth-century Twickenham, the eccentric aristocrat Horace Walpole decides to build his country residence in the Gothic style.
Work on Walpole's 'little gothic castle' began in 1747, when he formed the 'Committee of Taste' with two colleagues. His aim was to amalgamate 'castle-air' with Gothic elements in a domestic environment to create what he called 'gloomth'. Walpole was not the first to re-use Gothic architectural forms, but he was the first to publicise their use in a way that made them popular enough to ignite the later nineteenth-century Gothic Revival. Strawberry Hill initiated a style that still characterises many town centres to this day.
Walpole built his new style with such vigour and attention to detail that he felt he should record everything about it in books, prints and letters. This focus on posterity means Strawberry Hill is the most well-documented eighteenth-century building in the world. As a result, the house has been remarkably easy to restore; we know that the exterior was white, we know which portraits Walpole hung where, and we know the fabric covering the walls in the main parlour was woven from Wensleydale sheep wool (chosen for its crinkly quality which creates an elegant sheen when lit). This is just the tip of the gothic pinnacle though. Every measurement from floor to ceiling, including carving, gilding, rendering of original wall colours, wall patterns and stained glass has been copied from the original documentation. An astonishing achievement.
Most of the restoration work has been completed, but the details will be refined throughout winter and work is scheduled to finish in April 2011. After the delightful taster the V&A's 'Strawberry Hill' exhibition gave last summer (previewed in RA Magazine Spring 2010) the reopening of the house completes the picture. The Strawberry Hill Trust hopes that many objects from Walpole’s collection, sold at auction in 1842, will eventually be returned to the house.
Members of the public can visit Strawberry Hill from Saturday 2 October. You'll see when you visit that Gothic isn't gloomy – it glows with radiance and remains striking. See the short video above for a preview of what to expect.