Affluent residents of London, in an effort to escape the city’s heat and stench during the summer months, looked for country retreats; Twickenham, only ten miles from London on the banks of the Thames was a favorite spot. It was here that Horace Walpole, at the age of thirty, subleased as five acre farm bordering the Thames in 1747 from Mrs. Chenevix, the owner of a fashionable toy shop. Walpole wrote to a friend, “It is a little play-thing-house that I got out of Mrs. Chenevix’s shop.” A year later, he purchased the property from three minors named Mortimer and promptly set about gothicizing the unpretentious house, which he had christened Strawberry Hill from old leases that referred to the ground as “Strawberry-Hill-Shot.”
Walpole’s intention was to create a “small capricious house…built to please my own taste, and in some degree to realize my own visions” a vision he added with every modern convenience. William Beckford, who built the massive Gothic Fonthill Abbey toward the end of the century, dismissed Strawberry Hill as a ‘gothic mousetrap.’
With few examples of Gothick manor houses available at mid-century, Walpole was quite free to express himself in whatever manner he chose, as he merrily altered and added as his budget allowed. As writer Linda Hewhitt says, “The pursuit of Gothic afforded the thrill of discovery and the delight of improbable conjectures. Walpole used his Gothic as an intellectual plaything, a means of rising above and refuting the ordinary and mundane.”
His inventive, picturesque villa, with its additions and decorative motifs borrowed from a wide variety of original Gothic structures, evolved into a unique asymmetrical form that would influence the design of future English and American villas. Fancying himself as an antiquarian, Walpole lifted designs from all sorts of medieval sites, from chapel tombs to cathedral choirs, applying them in a random manner to chimneypieces, ceilings, windows, balustrades, and other structures throughout his house. While Walpole’s adaptations of authentic designs was a step away from Langley’s whimsical inventions, their use was still purely decorative; this is especially apparent when they are compared with the later nineteenth century structural applications of Gothic forms. Victorian writer Charles Eastlake says of Strawberry Hill: “The interior … is just what one might expect from a man who possessed a vague admiration for Gothic without the knowledge necessary for a proper adaptation of its features. Ceilings, niches, &c, are all copied or rather parodied, from existing examples, but with utter disregard for the original purpose of the design.” Walpole assembled a “committee of taste” to assist with Strawberry Hill’s makeover. John Chute, whom Walpole had met on the Grand Tour, and who, like himself, took a scholarly approach to the use of Gothic, was joined by Richard Bentley, a draughtsman who provided many fanciful touches to the structure, and the gifted Swiss born artist and scholar J. H Muntz. Walpole also called upon a number of his other sophisticated friends, such as Robert Adam, who designed the chimneypiece and ceiling for the Round Room, which Walpole used as a drawing room.
The first renovation Walpole undertook was to the exterior, when he added a three storey bay to the east front with ogee and quatrefoil windows and a crenellated roofline trimmed with crocketed pinnacles. A new stairwell and library followed. Then, in 1758, his little villa was extended with an adjoining long gallery that ended in a round tower. The fifty foot long, thirteen foot wide picture gallery had an open cloister under it. By 1763, with the addition of a small chapel like room referred to as the Cabinet (and later the Tribune) just off the long gallery to display Walpole’s rarer treasures, the rambling house was considered complete.
An avid art collector and genealogist, Walpole furnished his home with assorted medieval fragments and memorabilia, from stained glass to suits of armour, to heighten the medieval ambience. Passersby intrigued with the house frequently requested a tour through it, a common practice at the time. Anxious to show off his extensive collection Walpole opened part of Strawberry Hill to the public from noon to 3:00pm. May through October. Visitors flocked to tour his curious house and he took to printing tickets for admission. Walpole had used synthetic substances such as plaster in place of stone and papier-mâché as a substitute for plaster-appearance was all that mattered for early Gothicists. Strawberry Hill’s gateway, based on a medieval tomb at Ely Cathedral, was constructed of artificial stone and became an annoyance, as tourists took away bits for souvenirs.
Walpole died in 1797, leaving his much loved villa in the hands of Anne Damer, a cousin and close friend, with a yearly pension for its operation. In 1815 she relinquished it to the descendants of his niece, Countess Waldegrave, who sold Walpole’s treasures at auction in 1842; it was the largest sale of the century, lasting thirty two days. For a while it looked as though the neglected house had come to an en, but Strawberry Hill was to be a center of gaiety once again when the fashionable hostess Lady Waldegrave, who had married both of the countess’s sons, reopened the house in 1856, supervising its restoration and the construction of a new Tudor Gothic Victorian wing in 1861. She changed the entrance but kept the original portion virtually the same, attempting to buy back paintings, furniture, and other original items from those who had purchased them at auction.
In the 1920s the property was sold to St. Mary’s College and is operated by the Vincentian Order as a teachers’ college. Extensive restoration under the guidance of experts from the Victoria and Albert Museum began in the late 1980s.