A Sequence of theatrical spaces that played with scale, atmosphere and colour
‘Visions… have always been my pastures… there is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one.’ So said Horace Walpole (1717-97), youngest son of Great Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole.
Walpole realised his dream after acquiring a summer villa in Twickenham, south-west London, in 1747. He altered and extended it to create ‘the castle… of my ancestors’, and later renamed it Strawberry Hill. Strawberry Hill changed the course of architectural history. It was one of the earliest and most influential examples of Gothic Revival architecture, based on antiquarian printed design sources (the arched bookcases in the library were inspired by a choir screen seen in an engraving of London’s Old St Paul’s Cathedral).
’It was the first purpose-built, antiquarian ‘museum’ interior; a sequence of theatrical spaces that played with scale, atmosphere and colour as a background to Walpole’s collection of objects, all ‘singular’, ‘unique’, or ‘rare’
To coincide with Inskip + Jenkins Architects’ £8 million renovation of Strawberry Hill, due to reopen later this year, a lively and colourful exhibition at the V&A brings together part of Walpole’s collection of pictures, silver, ceramics, glass, miniatures, enamels and curious objects of virtu. Backgrounds of grey or faintly inscribed Gothic tracery on white paper evoke the atmosphere of ‘gloomth’ that Walpole created, and recall his remark that ‘my castle is built of paper’.
The exhibition, designed by Block Architecture, first introduces us to the ‘Strawberry Committee’ of amateur designers: Walpole, John Chute, whose pivotal role was the ‘oracle in taste’, artist Richard Bentley and poet Thomas Gray. Walpole did not employ an architect until the later stages of development. He eventually commissioned Robert Adam for the round drawing room - even then dictating the design - and James Essex for the offices, executed by James Wyatt.
Next, we are taken through a series of dynamic, irregular spaces on a journey through the house. We encounter ‘gloomth’ in the hall and armoury - spaces that inspired Walpole’s 1764 Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto - and in the refectory, which was part country-house dining room and part monastic eating room. The library, designed by Chute, is Strawberry Hill’s most serious essay in medieval Gothic. The Holbein chamber, focusing on the early 16th century, is followed by the state apartments, including the gallery, the round drawing room, the great north bedchamber, and finally the Tribune. Designed to contain Walpole’s finest things, this room has ‘the air of a Catholic chapel’ and was named after the Tribuna, the room of treasures at the Uffizi in Florence, Italy.
The exhibition’s display faithfully follows Walpole’s picture-hanging principles, mixing portraits with landscapes and hanging canvases of different sizes side by side to give the impression of accretion over time. His ‘principal curiosities’ are identified with labels featuring a star. This exhibition is an unmissable opportunity to see part of Walpole’s collection - one of the most unusual and interesting of the 18th-century, and surely an inspiration for that other great collector, John Soane.
Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill
Where: V&A, London, UK
When: Until July 4