Today is the birthday of Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. He was born in London in 1717. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he seems to have managed not to take a degree, then spent two years doing a Grand Tour in Europe. He later became MP for a constituency in Cornwall that he never visited and later of a Rotten Borough near Kings Lynn. None of these things are great, and they reek of over-privilege but there are two things he did that I want to tell you about.
Firstly, he built himself a splendid house called Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, which was then south west of the capital. It seems eighteenth century Twickenham was bit of a rural retreat for London’s wealthy and artistic people. I’m not entirely sure why as a quick look at the history of the area tells me that it was also home to factories that produced sulphuric acid and gunpowder. The house that he bought there was a relatively modest dwelling belonging to a coachman which was called Chopped Straw Hall. The name didn’t suit him at all and a search through the archive turned up an old lease which called his new acquisition Strawberry Hill Shot., much nicer. What he really liked about the original building was it’s asymmetry.
The original house wasn’t nearly grand enough though, and he began to add to it. Strawberry Hill sprouted Tudor style chimneys, medieval battlements and pointed Gothic windows. It was an odd mix of architectural styles that would become known as Strawberry Hill Gothic which foreshadowed the Victorian Gothic Revival. Walpole loved Gothic architecture and he continued the theme in the interior of the house. There is a gallery with an amazingly ornate ceiling in white and gold inspired by the ceiling of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The shelves in the library are based on the an illustration of a doorway in Old St Paul’s Cathedral and there is a fireplace which was influenced by the tomb of Edward the Confessor. What Walpole was after was the ambience of an ancient building, something for which he coined the term ‘gloomth’.
Strawberry Hill is not at all the dark sort of place that we would associate with Gothic architecture today. The corridors were dark but the rooms they opened into were bright and jewel like with lots of stained glass. Nor was the exterior gloomy, it was painted a brilliant white, making it look like some sort of fantastic piece of confectionery. The gardens were cheerful too. No fake ruins, no hermitage for him. He thought it was: “…almost comic to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in.” He thought Gothic should be confined to architecture but gardens should be all about the gaiety of nature, something that he referred to as ‘raint’.
While Walpole was building his house and being an MP he also found plenty of time for writing. His most famous novel is ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is cited as being the first Gothic novel. It begins with a forthcoming marriage but then the groom is killed when a giant helmet falls out of the sky and hits him. There’s a lot of intrigue, ghosts, unrequited love some tragic death and everyone lives miserably ever after. It would influence later writers such as Mary Shelley and ‘Bram Stoker.