Strawberry Hill

This is part of a local history note on Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. See the start of this local history note.

Strawberry Hill. Artist: J. H. M�ntz 1758.

“You will perceive by the date of my letter that my love for London is worn out; I have got an extreme pretty place just by Twickenham, which I am likely to be pleased with for at least some time, as I have many alterations to make. The prospect is delightful, the house very small, and till I added two or three rooms scarce habitable.”

So wrote Walpole in a letter to C. H. Williams on 27th June 1748. Three weeks earlier he had written to Horace Mann, “I am now returning to my villa, where I have been making some alterations: you shall hear from me from Strawberry Hill, which I have found out in my lease, is the old name of my house; so pray, never call it Twickenham again.”

After its purchase the development of Strawberry Hill became his overriding interest for many years. To start with Walpole was only concerned with “planting and fowls and cows and sheep.” Then the rebuilding began. He gradually expanded the grounds of the estate from its original 5 to 46 acres and the house was transformed into the celebrated Gothic house at the cost of £21,000. In a letter of 28th September 1749, Walpole refers to his “future battlements”, an indication that Walpole was obsessed with his vision of the house itself. He wrote in a letter of 10th January 1750 that “I am going to build a little Gothick castle at Strawberry Hill.” He also referred to the house as a “small capricious house” built to please “my own taste.” In order to make sure that the results of such a project would meet his aesthetic requirements, he formed a Committee of Taste, consisting of himself, John Chute and Richard Bentley. John Chute (1701-1776) was a connoisseur whom Walpole had met on his Grand Tour; the elevation of the house and many of the interior details were largely his work. When Chute died in 1776, Walpole wrote that he was “the genius that presided over poor Strawberry” and was “my oracle of taste.” Richard Bentley (1708-1782) was a skilled artist and draughtsman, but his attempts to put Walpole’s ideas into visual terms were frequently to meet with the latter’s disapproval. He was unstable, harassed by both marital and financial problems and his membership of the Committee ended abruptly in 1761 after a quarrel with Walpole. He was replaced in 1762 by Thomas Pitt, a neighbour with architectural leanings. A third person, not a member of the Committee, but indispensable to them because he possessed both the practicality and experience needed to realise their ideas, was William Robinson of the Board of Works. He had already supervised the first alterations to Strawberry Hill in 1748. This was a small two storied wing to the north and although nothing is known of its external appearance, the existing Kentian Gothic chimney-piece in the Breakfast Room gives us some idea. Walpole later stated that it “was not truly Gothick”. Johann Heinrich Muntz, “resident artist” at the house between 1755-59, also became a member of the Committee for a short time until he was dismissed by Walpole “for very pertinent behaviour.”

Walpole’s method was to take various details of Gothic buildings (either first-hand or from illustrations in topographical books) and adapt them to his purposes. Neither his approach, nor that of the other two members of his Committee, was particularly scholarly. As he confessed in a letter to Mary Berry written on 17th October 1794, the rooms at Strawberry Hill were “more the works of fancy than of imitation”. It did not, for instance, seem incongruous to him to scale down certain details of ecclesiastical architecture and transfer them to a domestic setting.

The first phase of the rebuilding was completed in 1753. The original house had a Gothic south front added, complete with battlements and wooden pinnacles and was covered in white plaster. Behind this, the rooms had also been altered. On the ground floor these included The Little Parlour (formerly the Supper Parlour), the Beauty Room (formerly the Yellow Bedchamber), the Hall (or “Paraclete”) and a small staircase. The wallpaper in the hall and on the staircase was painted to resemble part of Prince Arthur’s Chantry at Worcester. On the principal floor, the additions at this time included the Armory, the Blue and Red Bedchambers and probably the Star Chamber. All these rooms were smaller and less elaborate than the later ones, their Gothic elements being limited to chimney-pieces, doors and windows. The earlier 1748 wing and the east front were similarly treated and completed with a library (the ceiling painted by the French painter Jean-Francois Clermont who was paid £73 10s, the chimney-piece copied from tombs at Westminster and Canterbury and the bookcases from Dugdale’s St. Pauls) and refectory (later the Great Parlour) with an inaccurate Gothic chimney-piece by Bentley, in 1754.

Walpole described Strawberry Hill and its environs in a letter to Sir Horace Mann dated 12th June 1753:

“This view of the castle is what I have just finished, and is the only side that will at all regular. Directly before it is an open grove, through which you see a field which is bounded by a serpentine wood of all kinds of trees and flowering shrubs and flowers. The lawn before the house is situated on the tope of a small hill, from whence to the left you see the town and church of Twickenham encircling a turn in the river, that looks exactly like a seaport in miniature. The opposite shore is a most delicious meadow, bounded by Richmond Hill which loses itself in the noble woods of the park to the end of the prospect to the right, where is another turn of the river and the suburbs of Kingston as luckily placed as Twickenham is on the left; and a natural terrace on the brow of my hill, with meadows of my own down to the river, commands both extremities. Is this not a tolerable prospect? You must figure that all this is perpetually enlivened by a navigation of boats and barges, and by a road below my terrace, with coaches, post-chaises, wagons and horsemen constantly in motion, and the fields speckled with cows, horses and sheep. Now you shall walk into the house. The bow-window below leads into a little parlour hung with a stone-coloured Gothic paper and Jackson’s Venetian prints … From hence under two gloomy arches, you come to the hall and staircase, which is impossible to describe to you, as it is the most particular and chief beauty of the castle. Imagine the walls covered with (I call it paper, but it is really paper painted in perspective to represent) Gothic fretwork: the Gothic balustrade to the staircase, adorned with antelopes (our supporters) bearing shields; lean windows fattened with rich saints in painted glass, and a vestibule [the Armoury] open with three arches on the landing place, and niches full of trophies of old coats of mail, Indian shields made of rhinoceros’s hides, broadswords, quivers, long bows, arrows and spears … The room on the ground floor is a bedchamber [the Yellow Bedchamber, afterwards the Beauty Room] hung with yellow paper and prints, framed in a new manner invented by Lord Cardigan, that is, black and white borders printed. Over this is Mr Chute’s bedchamber [the Red Bedchamber] hung with red in the same manner. The bow-window room [the Blue Bedchamber] one pair of stairs is not yet finished; but in the tower beyond it is the charming closet [ later the China or Green Closet] where I am now writing to you. It is hung with green paper and water-colour pictures; has two windows; the one in the drawing looks to the garden, the other to the beautiful prospect; and the top of each glutted with the richest painted glass of the arms of England, crimson roses, and twenty other pieces of green, purple, and historic bits. I must tell you by the way, that the castle, when finished, will have two and thirty windows enriched with painted glass … Out of this closet is the room where we always live [the Breakfast Room], hung with a blue and white paper in stripes adorned with festoons, and a thousand plump chairs, couches and luxurious settees covered with linen of the same pattern, and with a bow-window commanding the prospect, and gloomed with limes that shade half each window, already darkened with painted glass in chiaroscuro, set in deep blue glass. Under this room is a cool little hall [the Waiting room] where we generally dine, hung with paper to imitate Dutch tiles … it is incredible how small much of the rooms are. The only two good chambers I shall have, are not yet built; they will be an eating-room [the Refectory or Great Parlour] and a library, each 20 by 30, and the latter 15 feet high … The Chinese summer house which you may distinguish in the distant landscape, belongs to my Lord Radnor.”

The ground floor room, which had originally served as a kitchen was, in 1755, transformed into a China Closet or China Room. The floor was laid with tiles bearing coats-of-arms and the ceiling had paintings by Johnann Heinrich Muntz, Walpole’s “Swiss painter that I keep in the house.” The chimney-piece had a mixed pedigree, the upper part being taken from a window of an ancient farmhouse in Essex and the lower part from a chimney at Hurstmonceaux in Sussex. Also in 1755, the room on the principal floor situated over the Breakfast Room was made into a bedroom “composed of seven lights” filled with painted glass.

The second building phase began in 1758. Another short wing was added to the west end of the hall which contained the Holbein chamber (a bedroom on the first floor) and the Little Cloister (on the ground floor), both designed by Chute and completed in 1761-63. These two rooms formed a court in front of the north entrance. The walls of the Holbein Chamber were hung with copied of Holbein drawings. The ceiling was copied from the Queen’s dressing room at Windsor and there was a chimney-piece by Bentley, copied mainly from Archbishop Warham’s tomb at Canterbury. There was a gently curved papier-mâché ceiling and Bentley also contributed the screen in this room, although the design of its “pierced arches” was taken from the gates of the Choir at Rouen.

The Great Cloister on the ground floor and the Round Tower at the west of the house were built in 1761. The Great Cloister was based on Chute’s drawings. The ground floor of the Round Tower was occupied by the kitchen. On the principal floor above was the Round Tower, not completed until 1771. Its chimney-piece, inspired by the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, was “improved by Mr [Robert] Adam and beautifully executed in white marble inlaid with scagliola by [John Augustus] Richter.” The ceiling was also painted by Adam, taken from a round window in old St. Paul’s.

In 1763, the Gallery and Tribune were finished. The Gallery (situated above the Great Cloister) was the most magnificent room in the house. The design was based initially on Bentley’s drawings, but the final version was the work of Thomas Pitt (1737-1793), later Lord Camelford, who replaced Bentley on the Committee. Pitt “had taken a small house at Twickenham – Palazzo Pitti” from 1762-64 and he elaborated on the original plan. Of particular note was the fan-vaulted ceiling, the design of which was taken from one of the side aisles in Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey “all Gothicism and gold, and crimson and looking-glass”. Pitt also embellished the Tribune (previously called the Cabinet and, earlier still, the Chapel). This room was “square with a semicircular recess in the middle of each side, painted stone-colour with gilt ornaments, and with windows and niches, the latter taken from these on the sides of the north door of the great church at St. Albans’ and was partly lit by a glazed star in the roof.”

For the third and final phase, Walpole employed professional architects. In 1772, The Great North Bedchamber – the only large bedroom in the house and built above the Servants’ Hall - on the principal floor was completed. This had a chimney-piece designed by Walpole from the tomb of William Dudley, Bishop of Durham, at Westminster and carved by the master mason at Westminster Abbey, Thomas Gayfare. It contained a bed “which would have become Cleopatra on the Cyndus, or Venus if she was not past Cupid-bearing”. The last main addition to the house was made in 1776. This was the Beauclerk Tower, conceived by Chute and designed by James Essex and containing a hexagonal closet in which were displayed 7 drawings executed by Lady Diana Beauclerk for Walpole’s Mysterious Mother. The Beauclerk Tower adjoined the Round tower and had a pointed circular roof.

Besides the rooms which formed the house itself, a number of buildings were added to the grounds of Strawberry Hill. These included the Embattled Wall, which extended along the northwest front of the house; two screens in the Prior’s Garden – possibly supplied by John Carter and the iron Garden Gates – supported by Gothic piers. This pair of gates was erected in 1769 and was designed by James Essex with the Gothic piers copied from Bishop Luda’s tomb in Ely Cathedral. Essex also designed new Offices for the servants in 1777, but they were not built until 1790 by James Wyatt. Robert Adam made 4 designs for the Cottage between 1766-68, but Walpole rejected them for a design by Chute in 1769. Bentley’s Rococo shell bench dates from c.1759, but his Chinese Pavilion was never built. The Chapel in the Wood was started in 1772 and completed in 1774. Designed by Chute, the front was carved by Thomas Gayfare and was a replica of the tomb of Bishop Audley in Salisbury Cathedral. Inside was a 13th century shrine from the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which had been “bought for 47 guineas on behalf of Sidney Herbert who utilised some of the pillars at Witton House”.

Updated: 22 June 2017