Sunday, 27 February 2011

Strawberry Hill Villa Part One

Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford was a great admirer of his contemporary, Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, proclaiming him to be the very “Apollo of the Arts”. However, when it came to building and decorating their own villas, they were poles apart in style although geographically relatively close to one another in what is now present day Greater London. At Chiswick House Boyle celebrated the strict classicism of Ancient Rome and Greece. For his part, Walpole was drawn towards the Gothic tradition of the Northern hemispheres. Like Boyle, Walpole was something of a Renaissance man in that he was a politician, a writer, (his book the Castle of Otranto is deemed be the first Gothic novel) a historian, a publisher and an antiquarian. Despite his wide range of interests Walpole correctly divined that his villa at Strawberry Hill would prove to be the greatest monument to his memory.

Unlike Richard Boyle, who had a grand Jacobean mansion already standing on the estate upon which he proposed to build Chiswick House, Walpole’s site at Twickenham housed a modest cottage when he purchased it in 1748. It was this cottage that he greatly expanded into the Gothic castle of his dreams. Boyle was influenced by ancient temples and ruins from the classical world. Walpole drew inspiration  from medieval cathedrals, abbeys even tombs. Thus, the tomb of Edward the Confessor inspired a chimney piece in the house and the fan vaulting in the Gallery was a direct crib from Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey. Another key difference between the two buildings is that Chiswick House is infused with a strict adherence to classical principles over mere comfort. Consequently, the internal stone spiral staircases made no concession to the wide cumbersome hooped skirts worn by fashionable women of the period. By contrast, although the villa at Strawberry Hill is not furnished, the interior and exterior have a sense of playful theatricality that cannot help but raise a smile at the sheer untrammelled exuberance of it all.

Marble Hill House
One of Walpole’s friends was the former mistress of George II, Henrietta Howard who had built her own villa at Marble Hill several decades before Walpole started work on Strawberry Hill.  It conformed to the classical ideal of the period. Nevertheless, Horace encouraged her to embrace the Gothic in the form of a folly in her gardens built in the style of a medieval chapel. Regrettably the folly has not survived into the 21st century. Henrietta and  Horace were such close friends that when she died in 1767 Walpole was moved to declare “‘I have lost few people in my life whom I shall miss so much.”  Horace drew heavily upon her reminisces of her earlier life at court when he came to write his own memoirs about the reign of George II. In the original preface to this work, published posthumously, is his extraordinary convoluted request as to how the manuscript should be treated after his death:

"In my Library at Strawberry Hill are two wainscot chests or boxes, the larger marked with an A, the lesser with a B. I desire, that as soon as I am dead, my Executor and Executrix will cord up strongly and seal the larger box, marked A, and deliver it to the Honourable Hugh Conway Seymour, to be kept by him unopened and unsealed till the eldest son of Lady Waldegrave, or whichever of her sons, being Earl of Waldegrave, shall attain the age of twenty-five years; when the said chest, with whatever it contains, shall be delivered to him for his own. And I beg that the Honourable Hugh Conway Seymour, when he shall receive the said chest, will give a promise in writing, signed by him, to Lady Waldegrave, that he or his Representatives will deliver the said chest unopened and unsealed, by my Executor and Executrix, to the first son of Lady Waldegrave who shall attain the age of twenty-five years. The key of the said chest is in one of the cupboards of the Green Closet, within the Blue Breakfast Room, at Strawberry Hill, and that key, I desire, may be delivered to Laura, Lady Waldegrave, to be kept by her till her son shall receive the chest.
(Signed) Hor. Walpole, Earl of Orford. "August 19, 1796."  

Such a covenant meant Horace felt he could write freely about the controversial personalities at the heart of the court of King George II including his own father, Sir Robert Walpole.

The work on transforming the original cottage into a Gothic masterpiece at Strawberry Hill began in earnest at the end of the 1740s. It was not completed until 1776. Horace relied on architects, both professional and amateur, and his own singular taste to render the gothic castle of his imagination into a reality. 

Faced with bare and weatherbeaten stone castle walls today, it is easy to forget that medieval kings and queens favoured vibrant colour schemes to adorn the interiors of their castles, placing richly embroidered tapestries and hangings on the walls and painting furniture was painted in bright colours. Additional colour streamed through stained glass windows. At the Tower of London a chantry and bedroom in St Thomas Tower have been staged as they might have looked during the reign of King Edward I.

In keeping with the medieval theme, the internal walls of Strawberry Hill are brightly coloured and Walpole made a prominent feature of the antique stained glass he installed in the gothic windows.
Dr John Dee
Today I listened again to a radio adaptation of  ‘The House of Doctor Dee,’ a novel by one of my favourite authors, Peter Ackroyd. The latter has a keen interest in history and a recurring motif in his novels is his belief, as stated in an interview with the Observer newspaper in 1994 that “there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory, the place, the past speaks. “  Ackroyd is fascinated by the way apparently disparate people are linked through time and space. John Dee, the eponymous hero of Ackroyd’s novel was a celebrated if somewhat notorious 16th century mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and magician who personally cast the horoscope for Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 to divine the most propitious date for her coronation. After the radio play had ended I searched for more information on Dr Dee and discovered that several of his artefacts have ended up in the British Museum. One of them is a pre-conquest Mexican “shew stone.” Made of highly polished volcanic glass, Dee used this mirror as a fundamental part of his magical rituals. The case, specifically made to hold the mirror, contains a label in Horace Walpole's own handwriting as he had acquired the item in 1771.Walpole describes the mirror as 'The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits ...'.According to the Strawberry Hill Catalogue kept at the Lewis Walpole Research Library at Farmington (part of Yale University) the 1774 attribution is as follows:
 “It is curious for having been used to deceive the mob by Dr. Dee, the conjurer, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was in the collection of the Mordaunts earls of Peterborough, in whose catalogue it is called, the black stone into which Dr. Dee used to call his spirits. From the Mordaunts it passed to Lady Elizabeth Germayne, and from her to John last duke of Argyll, whose son lord Frederic Cambell, gave it to Mr. Walpole.”

Lady Elizabeth Germayne was none other than the same Lady Betty Germaine, who spent so many years as a favoured house guest at Knole. Her name has been given to the closet containing a collection of blue and white china there. Drayton, the palatial mansion she bequeathed to one of the younger sons of her Knole hosts, was visited by Walpole during the latter years of her life. He described her house as being "covered with portraits, crammed with old china," part of which probably found its way into the closet at Knole. Listening to yet another radio play, I discovered that Lady Betty had another far more notorious visitor to her London townhouse; the infamous womaniser Giacomo Casanova. In his memoirs, Casanova recalls meeting up again with Pauline, one of his English conquests at Lady Betty’s house, not that Lady Betty would have been aware of his less than gentlemanly designs on one of her female guests.
 “For a fortnight I saw nothing of her, but I met her again in a house where Lady Harrington had told me to present myself, giving her name.  It was Lady Betty German's, and I found her out, but was asked to sit down and wait as she would be in soon.  I was pleasantly surprised to find my fair friend of Ranelagh in the room, reading a newspaper.  I conceived the idea of asking her to introduce me to Lady Betty, so I went up to her and proffered my request, but she replied politely that she could not do so not having the honour to know my name.
"I have told you my name, madam.  Do you not remember me?"
"I remember you perfectly, but a piece of folly is not a title of acquaintance."
I was dumbfounded at the extraordinary reply, while the lady calmly returned to her newspaper, and did not speak another word till the arrival of Lady Betty”.
Regrettably Casanova gives no description of either Lady Betty’s house or personage being too preoccupied with his beloved Pauline.
Anne Seymour Damer
Unlike Casanova Horace Walpole was no womaniser but he did have a number of close platonic female friends including the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, to whom he bequeathed Strawberry Hill upon his death. As well as being an accomplished sculptor, Anne’s other claim to fame is that she shares the same birthday as the Brimstone Butterfly. Despite receiving the impressive  sum of £2,000 a year to maintain Strawberry Hill Anne ended up passing the house on to the aristocratic Waldegrave family. The 6th Earl auctioned off the contents of the house in 1842 and his widow, Lady Frances inherited the by then empty and increasingly derelict Strawberry Hill in 1846.
19th Century additions

19th century additions
Lady Frances led quite an extraordinary life in her own right. She married four times: the first two husbands were also brothers. She was a widow twice over when she married for a third time at the age of 26, her third husband then being 62. Her fourth husband was a Liberal politician and Lady Frances used the fortune she had amassed from her marriages to promote his career. She had already embarked upon her plan of restoring Strawberry Hill to its former splendour before this final marriage. Subsequently, it became a lavish backdrop for her role as one of the leading political hostesses of the Victorian era. Consequently, there is a whole wing of the house, including a chapel, which I inititally erroneously attributed to Horace Walpole instead of Lady Waldegrave.

Like Horace Walpole and Anne Damer before her, Lady Waldegrave had no children and her widower sold Strawberry Hill in 1888. In 1927 the villa became St Mary’s, a Roman Catholic Teacher Training College. In 1958 work was carried out to remove some of Lady Waldegrave’s additions and restore the north elevation to how it would have looked in Walpole’s time. In the 21st century the Strawberry Hill Trust was set up with the task of restoring Walpole’s villa and opening it up on a permanent basis to the general public. To that end they negotiated a 120 year lease from the Catholic Education Trust. More recently, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund they were able to embark upon an ambitious and still continuing 9 million pounds programme of repairs and renovation, enabling them to open the doors to the public in October 2010.  Henceforth, Strawberry Hill will re-open on an annual basis in April. It was thanks to the Aviatrix that I first got word of the dramatic change in Strawberry Hill’s fortunes. There was a real fear as recently as 2004 that the house was fast in danger of becoming a ruin again. Before last October it had only been possible to visit the villa by appointment. Intrigued at the prospect of visiting a place we had both heard so much about but had never visited in person,  we made our way to Twickenham and to Strawberry Hill on an unexpectedly fine autumnal Day.