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Essay: Rooms in Strawberry Hill House

by John Iddon on 14 December 2006

From 'Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill: A History and Guide from Walpole’s Time to the Present', by John Iddon, St Mary’s University College, 1996.

From 'Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill: A History and Guide from Walpole’s Time to the Present', by John Iddon, St Mary’s University College, 1996.

Library

Amongst the most marvellous features of the house are the pierced gothic arches of the bookcases, designed by Chute and based on a site door of the choir illustrated by Hollar in Dugdale’s ‘Old St. Paul’s’. The ceiling was designed by Walpole and painted by Clermont. It continued the theme of the Crusades we’ve met in the Saracen’s head motif in the armory. Walpole was determined to make the most of his forebears’ connections with the Crusades and the ceiling shows two of them (Fitz Osbert, near the window, and Rosbart) on horseback. There are also the Walpole coats of arms and some gothic script.

This script is nearly unreadable but Walpole ‘translates’ in his description ‘Fari quae sentiat’ (loosely translated this means ‘Do what you want to do’) and he date MDCCLIV (1754) commemorates the year when the room was completed.

In his description, Walpole says: ‘The chimney piece is imitated from the tomb of John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall, in Westminster Abbey: the stone work from that of Thomas Duke of Clarence at Canterbury’. Both of these ‘imitations’ would have come from Dart’s books on Canterbury and Westminster.

From the window, Walpole would be able to look left towards Twickenham (which he described as a ‘sea port in miniature’) and its line of riverside villas and summer houses including Lord Radnor’s ‘Mabland’ his ‘tasteless’ in Walpole’s view, clutter of Summer houses and garden buildings, including a Chinese pagoda, by the river. Walpole might have been piqued that Lord Radnor had already produced a gothic façade facing the river by 1750. It shows on a Heckel view of that date and part of it can be seen again (with Strawberry Hill just visible to the left of the Chinese pavilion) of Nathaniel Scott’s view from across the river (page 32). The solid line of battlements and arched windows of Radnor House, though they pre dated Strawberry, lack Walpole’s lovely variety and whimsy. Ahead, from this window, Walpole could see the river traffic and on the right he could look towards Kingston.

In shelves opposite the fireplace are the 48 volumes of W.S Lewis’s Walpole correspondence. Wilmarth Lewis, an American millionaire who became a great scholar and collector of Walpoliana, edited this epic work of scholarship reproducing all known letters of Walpole together with those of his correspondents. From the 1920s until his death in 1979, Lewis brought almost everything that became available relating to Walpole Library, at his old home in Farmington, Connecticut, now houses the major collection of Walpoliana in the world. Not only did he buy up Walpole’s letters, prints and pictures, but also the books that Walpole had in this library, and about a third of all the books in Walpole’s time are now in Farmington on shelves in the dame order and groupings as they were on the shelves. Lewis also collected artefacts, like the lamp that Bentley designed for the Hall, the couches in the Long Gallery and the cabinet Walpole had made to store Lady Diana Beauclerk’s drawings.

The windows still have portraits of Charles I and Charles II put in by Walpole. But the original panels of ‘Faith, Hope and Charity” were sold in the Great Sale of 1842 and have been replaced by three panels representing the seasons.

In the Carter watercolour of this room, you can see a statue of a fishing eagle ‘killed on Lord Melbourne’s estate at Brocket Hall’ modelled in terracotta ‘the size of life’ by Mrs. Damer, Walpole’s niece (to whom Walpole left Strawberry Hill when he died in 1797). In the fireplace you can also see the artist has painted Walpole’s more efficient fire basket. The present fire insert is a piece of 1930s tiled gothic! Where the overmantel mirror now stands, you can see in Carter.’

Walpole's Gallery

In the summer of 1763, Walpole expressed his excitement as the Gallery neared completion and his love (like Lady Waldegrave later) of involving himself in the process: ‘Gilders, carvers, upholsterers, and picture cleaners are labouring at their several forges and I do not love to trust a hammer or a brush without my own supervisal.’

The fan-vaulted ceiling, based on Henry Vic’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey is of papier-mâché, the canopies above the recesses opposite the windows are based on Archbishop Bouchier’s tomb in Canterbury. They were designed by a new member of the Committee of Taste, Thomas Pitt, Bentley having finally been eased out partly because Walpole could not stand his wife who, he felt, did not know how to behave in the presence of ‘people of the first rank.’ Bentley’s last rejected, design was for a more austere barrel-vaulted ceiling rather than Chute’s fan vaulted one here.

Pitt had traveled in Iberia on his Grand Tour and you can see some of the Moorish influences in the gold network over glass. Walpole also said the gallery was inspired by Chantilly – and there is a very un-monastic combination of gothic vaulting with the guilded fretwork, looking glass and red silk damask wall coverings. Walpole said: ‘I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence; Strawberry is growing sumptuous in its later day; it will scarce be any longer like the fruit of its name, or the modesty of its ancient demeanor…’ Gray felt it had degenerated from the initial medieval inspiration for the house, but visitors loved it and it housed some of the best examples of Walpole’s Collection: an eagle found in Caracalla in Rome, sent by Mann in 1742; the silver eyed bust of Caligua, excavated from Herculaneum and Reynolds’s picture of Walpole’s niece, Maria Waldegrave.

Indeed the Collection was responsible for the ‘magnificence’ of the room: ‘my collection was too great already to be lodged humbly, it has extended my walls, and pomp followed.’

This was were Walpole would entertain, sometimes dressing up in some of the more bizarre curios in his collection and having French horns and clarinets playing form the cloister below – floating up in a sensory mix with the fragrance of his garden. One June evening in 1765, he wrote: ‘I am just come out of the garden in the most oriental of all evenings, and from breathing odours beyond those of Araby. The acacias, which the Arabians have the sense to worship, are covered with blossoms, the honeysuckles dangle from every tree in festoons, the syringes are thickets of sweets, and the new cut hay in the field tempers the balmy gales with simple freshness; while a thousand sky rockets launched into the air at Ranelagh or Marylebone illuminate the scene, and gave it an air of Haroun Alraschids’s paradise.’ In the new meadow beyond the windows, cattle and sheep had been chosen so that their colours would harmonise with the flowers and blooms and barbary sheep chosen because their curled horns echoed the serpentine ‘sweet walks’ in the pleasure gardens to the south of the Round Tower. Cows would be brought up to the terrace and milked to make syllabubs for guests.

Most of the portraits in the Gallery today were collected by the Vincentian priests in the twentieth century as being appropriate to the spirit of the gallery. However, five have direct relevance. The two at the Tower end facing down the Gallery are copies of Eccardt portraits commissioned by Walpole himself and the one on the right is of Thomas Gray who accompanied Walpole on a Grand Tour from 1739-42, quarrelled with him, but later made up and had some of his Odes published on the Strawberry Hill Press.

Opposite the windows are portraits of Alexander Pope, the nightingale (or to some the ‘wasp’) of Twickenham and Horatio Walpole, the hunting, shooting and fishing uncle from Norfolk with whom Horace had nothing in common.

Finally there is a portrait of Chatterton (‘that marvellous boy’) who tried to persuade Walpole that he had found an original medieval poem, which he had forged. When, after first believing him, Walpole distanced himself, Chatterton bitterly resented him. He committed suicide at the age of eighteen, alone in a garret in London and for the rest of Walpole’s life some would still, quite unfairly, see him as partly responsible for the boy poet’s unhappiness and death.

Walpole was not the only person who had items transported from the Continent for his Long Gallery. Lady Waldegrave had the floor brought over from a palace in Vienna and you can see from the brass inlay at each end of the room her arms, and the year she began to make alterations (1856), opposite homage to Walpole (with Saracen’s head – this time a very Victorian looking version – and the date of Walpole’s arrival at the house, 1747). It is not surprising that she should pay this tribute to Walpole since all of her additions reveal a respect and affection for his original vision.

The Breakfast Room

In the early days before the opening of the Great Parlour and Library in 1794, Walpole described this as ‘the room where we always live’ and it had ‘a thousand plump chairs, couches and luxurious settees.’ Its position, facing east to catch the early morning sun over the river, would have made an ideal breakfast room.

There is another name for this room given by Lady Waldegrave to describe the changes she made to the décor you now see. In Walpole’s day the walls were stripped blue and white and he would sit at the window having breakfast with his laptop and a tame squirrel which would come into the room to be fed from the lime trees he planted close to the house to increase the ‘gloomth’.

It has the only fireplace with a suggestion of the classical about it in the whole house. It was designed by Robinson in the early days, when Walpole was making Chopp’d Straw Hall more comfortable and before he’d made his decision to create a gothic ‘Castle’. This however quickly rises up in the Moorish arabesque shapes of the overmantel. Lady Waldegrave added this and the fretwork around the walls and the velvet ceiling with its suggestion of a Bedouin tent, re-naming the room ‘the Turkish Boudoir’. Lady Waldegrave’s friend Edward Lear had, about the time of her conversions to the room. Been painting in the Holy Land and he may well have influenced her in her ‘eastern’ choice of décor.

Among the many paintings and artefacts that filled this room in Warpole’s time was a picture of Rose, the Royal Gardener, presenting Charles II with the first pineapple grown in England. A copy of this picture now hangs in Ham House across the river.

The Holbein Chamber

The name comes from the fact that Walpole had twenty original Holbein’s hanging here as well as an additional thirty-four portraits of members of the Court of Henry VIII traced on oil paper by Vertue from original Holbein drawings from the Royal Collection at Buckingham House. Bentley’s beautiful screen partitioning in the room is based on a screen at Rouen Cathedral. The Rouen original was burnt down later in the 18th Century so this version could almost be seen as an example of one of the ‘justifications’ Walpole gives in the Preface to his Description for listing and printing specimens off Gothic features in this house: ‘The general disuse of Gothic architecture, and the decay and alterations so frequently made in churches, give prints a chance of being the sole preservatives of that style.’ The chimney-piece, also by Bentley, is taken from the tomb of Archbishop Wareham at Canterbury. The ceiling, papier mache, was copied from the Queen’s Bedchamber at Windsor. A large four-poster bed with a plume of white and purple feathers on the centre of the tester would have been in the smaller part of the room. One of Walpole’s ‘curiosities’, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, hung to the side of the bed. From the bay window Walpole, or his guests, could have looked right and down the leafy avenue of the old road to an obelisk by the river’s edge. The present line of the road, away from the house, was diverted in the 19th century by Lady Waldegrave. Where the present Waldegrave Road runs is the area of his kitchen garden near the cottage.

The Tribune

Walpole named this room after the room in the Uffizi palace in Florence where all the best treasures were kept. Here Walpole had his unrivalled collection of coins, medals, miniatures and enamels. Some of the best were kept in a cabinet (now in the V&A), which was in the recess on you right as you look from the door. It was of rosewood with ivory statuettes of Fiamingo, Inigo Jones and Palladio on the pediment. Inside were miniatures and enamels by Oliver, Hilliard, Peitot and Zincke. Its classical design and flat back indicate that the cabinet was originally made for Walpole’s Georgian house in Arlington Street. The ceiling is, according to Walpole, inspired by the Chapterhouse at York Minster (although the similarity is a little loose). A carpet from Moorfields had a central star reflecting the star in the ceiling and a surrounding pattern taken from the mosaic in the windows. The Tribune was also known as ‘The Cabinet’ and ‘The Chapel’ but it was never consecrated, Walpole again enjoying only a theatrical sense of the religious, but ironically when Vincentian priests came to live in Strawberry Hill in 1925, they consecrated it as their private chapel, and so it remained until the priests left in 1992.

Author:
John Iddon

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