Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A Gothic Story: Revisiting Strawberry Hill

On a recent visit home, my mum wanted to take me out for the day, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Travelling from Essex, and on one of the hottest days this summer, I dragged my mum from one side of London to the other to visit a very Gothic location buried in the suburbs of Twickenham. Three hours, three trains, and a small detour via the Thames embankment later, we arrived at a Gothic house that you may just have heard of before: Strawberry Hill.

(Strawberry Hill, and Laura Fords ‘Days of Judgement (Cats I-VII))

In fact, for all lovers of the Gothic, Strawberry Hill is a very familiar name. Constructed in the eighteenth century by Horace Walpole, this house, or castle, stands as an apt reflection of the theatrical, eccentric, and Gothic tastes of its owner and designer. As well as reviving the Gothic style through his architectural creation, Walpole was also a politician, a collector, and of course the author of the first Gothic Novel, The Castle of Otranto, which was published anonymously in 1764.

The white walls and Gothic turrets of the castle are hard to miss, and even in Walpole’s own time people found this distinct building strange and out of place. However, once built, Walpole reveled in the tourism that his castle and vast collection of pictures, sculpture, furniture, and artefacts inspired. In fact, his castle proved such a popular attraction that he introduced a ticketing system for visitors, and even created a guidebook that was printed at Strawberry Hill’s very own printing press.
It is an edited version of this book that serves as both ticket and guide for modern visitors. You are encouraged to explore the house independently, although there are plenty of helpful volunteers scattered throughout the rooms, and with a wealth of knowledge, who are very happy to answer any questions.

A Description of Strawberry Hill

Today, like Walpole had intended, the house still offers a very Gothic and indeed a theatrical journey. Beginning with the ‘gloomth’ of the hall and staircase, in which ‘by a cord of black and yellow, hangs a Gothic lanthorn’[1] that provides a suitably gloomy atmosphere, each visitor is then guided through a multitude of varied and carefully crafted rooms, before finally finding themselves in the grand splendour of the Gallery. The Gallery is awash with lavish red wallpaper, the ceiling covered with intricately designed, white fan-vaulting laced with gold, and containing five recesses hung with paintings and covered with small mirrors. It is truly a journey from darkness to light.

This was actually my second visit to Strawberry Hill, but it was just as fascinating as the first. The ongoing restoration of the house has meant that more rooms are open to the public and restored to their eighteenth-century and Gothic brilliance. Moreover, the house is currently home to an exhibition of contemporary sculpture by Laura Ford. Many of Ford’s sculptures on display here were made especially for this exhibition and with the history and atmosphere of Strawberry Hill in mind.

Ford and her creations are an ideal choice for the first exhibition of contemporary sculpture at Strawberry Hill. Her sculptures have been described as ‘faithful representations of fantasy with sometimes bitter sweet and menacing qualities mixed with tenderness,’ and also as being ‘intensely crafted but playful.’[1] These are descriptions that seem fitting for the Gothic which is often formulaic but playful, terror-inspiring and yet also theatrically camp. Ford’s creatures draw on these themes through their distinctly child-like and anthropomorphic qualities, appearing as animals, dolls, or children playing dress up, and that engage with, and are enhanced by, their Gothic surroundings.

'Medieval Cloud Girls'
Walking through the house and its gardens, then, each visitor is not only met with Walpole’s Gothic architecture and distinct interior design, but also the various contemporary sculptures that have been specifically placed in each room or part of the garden.  Outside, on the main lawn, a set of cat sculptures cast in bronze and entitled ‘Days of Judgement (Cats I-VII)’ stand against the white backdrop of Strawberry Hill. Inside the rooms of the house, the sculptures appear simultaneously playful and creepy, feeding off of their Gothic setting. For example, upon entering the house, and finding yourself in the gloomy hall, you are greeted with a sculpture titled ‘Sorrow Filled Cat I.’ Standing in a corner beneath the staircase, this cat is attired in a dress and bonnet, staring sorrowfully upwards and appearing like a child’s toy and uncannily alive.

'Sorrow Filled Cat I'

So, what are you waiting for? Walpole’s Gothic castle awaits.  


[1] Horace Walpole, A Description of Strawberry Hill (Strawberry Hill: The Strawberry Hill Trust, 2015), p. 12. 

Mary Going is a PhD student studying Gothic Literature at the University of Sheffield.  She is the thing the monsters have nightmares about.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your visit. The "Sorrow Filled Cat I" looks wonderfully creepy standing there under the Gothic staircase. If/when I ever get back to England, Strawberry Hill will definitely be on my list!