Saturday, April 17, 2010

Strawberry Hill - A Gothic Confection

Strawberry Hill, the 18th century summer house of Horace Walpole was undoubtedly an exuberant experiment in Gothic revival. In 1748 Walpole purchased the house built in 1698, and set out to make "a little Gothic castle" with the help of 2 talented friends, referring to themselves as a Committee of Taste. In several phases of improvements over 30 years the house grew and changed. There did not seem to be a fixed plan and additions were made based on loose interpretations of earlier baronial architecture he admired, as the chapel at Westminster Abbey and engravings of chimney pieces from early churches.

The house, just outside London, was widely visited although not entirely appreciated. Some thought it a folly and a disgrace. In addition to his mixing styles and periods, he used details from the exteriors of churches on the interiors of his house. It was, at the time, greatly discussed. And now, not surprisingly, it's recognized as one of the most influential houses of Georgian Gothic style.

Gothic became a popular architectural theme in the nineteenth century, perhaps in part because of Walpole's Strawberry Hill. What was unheard of in his choice of blending and recreating ancient styles and details of various periods has now become common for draftsmen and builders of new suburban construction and developments of mini mansions marketing grand traditional homes.

Fortunately, Walpole's writing, many of his collections (over 4,000 were displayed in his home for tours during his lifetime), architectural drawings, engravings and the house itself survive to visit and enjoy.

The house is under restoration and shall reopen to the public in the fall of 2010. The V & A is presently hosting an exhibit on Walpole, the collector through July 4.

Images of Strawberry Hill courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library collection at Yale University, top to bottom: The Tribune, 1789; View of the Great North Bed Chamber, n.d.; The Great Cloister; Sketch of the Gallery, 1759; The Round Drawing Room, n.d.

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