Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill

As someone whose first interest in history was the Wars of the Roses, I first came across Horace Walpole through his book Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III, in which he defended the reputation of Richard, including denying popular views that he murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Horace was the rather eccentric son of Britain’s first prime minster, Robert Walpole. He was a historian, collector, social and political commentator, writer, and author. He is perhaps most well known for writing the first gothic novel, and for leaving behind around 7,000 letters, and an account of the historical items in his collection at Strawberry Hill, his house in Twickenham.[1] Strawberry Hill itself is one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revival architecture and reflects Walpole’s interest in the medieval. The unique house was a source of fascination to the polite middle classes who were becoming interested in the country houses of the rich. However, this was not how the building began its life.

Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt (1754), © National Portrait Gallery, London

As a younger son, Horace didn’t have his own country seat to use as a summer residence and he looked for the perfect place to convert into one. In 1747, he acquired the site in Twickenham, when it was as a rather ordinary late-seventeenth century cottage called Chopped Straw Hall.[2] It came with 5 acres of land but before long, it expanded to include 46 acres.[3] The beginning of the transformation into the building Horace wished was initially low key. The first mention of any connection to the Gothic was mentioned in a letter from Horace to a friend on the 28th of September 1749, where he mentioned about creating battlements.[4] From then on, the Gothic architecture would be developed by the ‘Committee of Taste’, including Walpole and two of his friends, John Chute and Richard Bentley. Chute had met Walpole on the Grand Tour around Europe and owned his own Tudor Gothic home in Hampshire, whereas Bentley created the drawings and plans based on Walpole and Chute’s ideas.[5] These ideas were mainly inspired by Gothic features seen elsewhere.

E. Rooker, Strawberry Hill near Twickenham (1774), British Library

The rooms created for Strawberry Hill were purposefully created to be an exaggerated and theatrical version of the classic Gothic architecture seen in the medieval period.[6] The style created was from Walpole’s imagination, but had elements that were recognisable as Gothic. It meant that a more theatrical version of the Gothic was created for the brash Georgian era. As what we now call Gothic Revival was in its infancy, there was not yet any set rules for the style. Walpole’s version of this was certainly theatrical and reflected the uniqueness of the objects he collected.[7] The building work, not including the contents, cost £21,000, around £925,000 in today’s money, so it was a rather expensive renovation project.[8]

The collection that was created at Strawberry Hill was a rather random collection almost in the style of a cabinet of curiosities but were collected by Walpole to create a museum to England’s history and heritage, especially time periods that were not seen as fashionable at the time.[9] The Georgians very much focused on items from ancient civilisations like Rome or Greece, but Walpole’s focus was very much on the medieval, right through to the Stuarts in the previous century. Some of the treasured items in his collection included locks of hair of Edward IV and Mary I, a hat that once belonged to Cardinal Wolsey, a comb of Mary Queen of Scots and a watch of George II.[10] The way these items were displayed and described were based on a mixture of “provenance, description, association and imagination”, possibly saying more about Walpole than the items.[11] Despite the criticism this has brought Walpole, both in his own time and now, there is no doubting that he tried to widen the circle of what was worthy to study as history.

Print from: A description of the villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex: with an inventory of the furniture, pictures, curiosities, & c. Strawberry-Hill, printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1784, Rijksmuseum

To create the museum like home he wanted, it was essential for Strawberry Hill was open to the public to see the collections. This is where Walpole’s selectively anti-social behaviour really shone through. Whilst he was open to hosting foreign ambassadors, royalty, and aristocracy, it was the middling classes he found rather annoying.[12] In a letter to Sir Horace Mann dated 30th of July 1783, he wrote of the many visitors coming to Strawberry Hill, which meant he was “tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house”.[13] He was especially peeved by the visitors who came as an escape from the illnesses circulating in London, suggesting “You see the plague! You are the plague.”[14] In a list of visitors kept for Strawberry Hill between 1784 and 1797, it shows that when the house was open between May and September, around 300 people a year viewed the house.[15]

The tour around the house is not self-guided as we would understand from a county house visit today. They would have been shown round by the housekeeper on a set route. Walpole was often known to hide under his bed when the housekeeper showed groups around.[16] Despite the aggravation these visitors caused, the house was never shut to visitors during Walpole’s lifetime. Perhaps this was partly because these tourists were the reason for his ‘museum’ existing. Instead, he chose to curb their behaviour by only allowing visitors with tickets given out with his signature on to be admitted. From 1784, a page of rules was also given to prospective tourists to ensure they knew the rules they had to follow to gain admittance. First and foremost, anyone applying for a tour would have to give their name and the number in their party, alongside the date they wished to attend. This information would be then given to the housekeeper if Walpole agreed to allow the party around the house.[17] Further rules would also have to be abided by:

  1. The person applying must give at least a day or two’s notice and would only be allowed to be a party of 4 people. Also, only one party to be shown around per day.
  2. The day given on the ticket would be valid for the day shown and if more than 4 people arrived without prior permission, the housekeeper would be allowed to turn them away.
  3. The party could only be shown around between 12 and 3 pm.
  4. No group would be admitted after dinner.
  5. If the ticket couldn’t be used on the date written on it, then prior knowledge must be given so another party could be allowed the opportunity to go.
  6. No children.

These rules may sound strict, but there could be leniency given on all of them other than the no children one, as there was always a strict no children policy.[18]

T. Rowlinson, Temple at Strawberry Hill, from “Sketches from Nature” (1822), Metropolitan Museum

Sadly, after Horace died, the building was left rather neglected and unloved by its owners and the novelty of the building and its contents wore off for visitors, meaning no one really wished to visit as a tourist. As Horace died unmarried, the house went through various distant female relatives. It wasn’t until George, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave inherited it that the building was really hated. He decided to leave the house to ruin and sold off the collection in 1842.[19] It could have ended disastrously for this once unique and popular building if it hadn’t had been for George’s widow, Frances. She had been left a lot of money by George and went on to have another rich husband, meaning she could afford to add extensions to the house in a style like Walpole’s original fantasy Gothic.[20] It is her, alongside the current owners, St Mary’s University College, that we have to thank for the survival of such an unusual, and in my opinion beautiful, building that we can now enjoy.

I have yet to visit Strawberry Hill, but it’s certainly another one to add to my to visit list when things are better and we can travel again. Of particular interest to me is the cottage in the garden that once housed Walpole’s printing press which he used to publish he works from. This printing press was the first one to be privately owned in England, and strangely housed in the only building in the garden that wasn’t built in the Gothic style, instead it was built in traditional Georgian brick. I still wonder what Horace’s thinking was behind that.[21]


[1] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[2] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), p. xvii.

[3] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, Metropolitan Museum Studies, 5.1 (1934), p. 60.

[4] Cited in Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 62.

[5] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, pp. 63-64.

[6] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4.

[7] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4; Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[8] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 60.

[9] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4.

[10] P. Bains, ‘”All of the House of Forgery”: Walpole. Chatterton and Antiquarian Collecting’, Poetica, 39/40 (1993), cited in Mack, R., ‘Horace Walpole and the Objects of Literary History’, ELH, 75.2 (2008), p. 374.

[11] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, pp. 2-3.

[12] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[13] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist: A History of Country House Visiting (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd, 1998), p. 91.

[14] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 91.

[15] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 92.

[16] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 92.

[17] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 96.

[18] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, pp. 96 and 98.

[19] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[20] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[21] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 87.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s