Given the deluge that met us on our tour of Eltham Palace a matter of mere weeks earlier, the Aviatrix and I counted ourselves fortunate that our jaunt to Strawberry Hill was on a fine December’s day. Arriving in front of the perimeter wall we could glimpse the round turret of the gothic castle, leading us to erroneously assume that the brown crenulated walls were also part of the original villa. In reality they had been added in the 19th century by the Victorian political hostess Frances, Lady Waldegrave. Her additions all but receded from view as we walked along the gravel path sweeping up to the front of the house. It was soon apparent that, unlike at Chiswick House, not only does the building disregard classical strictures governing proportion, it also plays fast and loose with the idioms of medieval architecture too. But then Horace Walpole was not a purist about such matters and regarded his mansion as being a “plaything house.”
We decided to examine the exterior of the house in more detail, lest the weather change whilst we were indoors. We spied a half opened door in an arched gateway which led to a small enclosed courtyard. This had served as the front entrance in the 18th century. Today, the house is accessed through the little shop at the side. As we continued to perambulate the exterior we saw clear signs that the renovations were not quite complete, with scaffolding still in place and one newly painted room a jumble of cardboard boxes.
The view of the house from the back gardens was stunning. Lady Waldegrave’s gothic themed extension in plain stone, with its heraldic shields and statues in niches, complemented the whitewashed round tower and walls of Walpole’s villa. Only the whitewashed buildings were open to the public, the rest continuing to form part of the Roman Catholic St Mary’s Teacher Training College.
I particularly liked the wrought iron staircase with its decorative feature of intertwining leafs leading up to the Round Tower. It was only later that I realised the foilage and fruit represented strawberries.The semi-glazed door at the top of the iron steps was locked. One aspect of the gardens we were not able to appreciate was the Shell chair, which was a specially commissioned modern replica of Walpole’s original. As with the statue of Bacchus at Ham House, the Shell chair had been covered up to protect it over the winter months.
From the little shop I purchased a number of lead pencils topped with miniatures in metal of suits of armour or knights’ helmets. They would prove to be stylish Christmas presents I reasoned. I then went with the Aviatrix into what Walpole styled his Beauty Room on the ground floor before beginning the tour in earnest. The Beauty Room is now referred to as the Discovery Room as it shows the various stages of renovation carried out elsewhere in the house. Thus, the walls were shown stripped back to their late 17th century wooden panelling, indicating that this had once formed part of the small cottage Walpole had bought and expanded into his gothic castle. Along the top of the fireplace a small strip had been left untouched to show what the rest would have looked like, before being restored to its present condition. In a closet and with the aid of a carefully positioned mirror, could be glimpsed rare 19th century wallpaper still extant. Even though greatly faded, it was clear it must have been a charming sight when first placed upon the walls in the Victorian era. Through security glass could be viewed the system of pulleys which would have enabled Lady Waldegrave to summon a servant to her presence. A similar system was found in recent years at Brimstone Butterfly Towers. If that had been renovated others could have summoned the Brimstone Butterfly from her garret in what was once the servants’ quarters. One curious feature I discovered later is that the windows were apparently designed to slide back into the walls to give the impression of being on a balcony. A singular delight I failed to observe altogether was the extant anaglypta paper covering the ceiling dating from the decade “that taste forgot,” the 1970s.
Having viewed the Beauty Room, we made our way to the hall, where we sat down on benches and donned the obligatory plastic bootees. Before ascending the staircase we went into the Great Parlour on the ground floor where Walpole had dined. I was instantly struck by the vivid colour of the purple wallpaper, which had been lain horizontally according to the 18th century fashion. The cream chimneypiece was redolent of the spires on medieval cathedrals. Inset into the bay window were examples of the antique stained glass which constitute one of the chief glories of the house.
I vividly recall my disappointment upon first visiting Sainte Chapelle in Paris after having heard so much about its interior. The richly decorated columns supporting the low vaulted ceiling were brightly coloured enough, but nothing like the glorious interior I had anticipated. Unknowingly I had inadvertently stumbled upon the lower chapel. Only when I made my way to the upper chapel with its stunning stained glass windows and soaring ceilings did I begin to understand why Sainte Chapelle had won such a reputation for its magnificence. In a similar vein, Walpole had meant the hall and stairwell at Strawberry Hill to serve as a gloomy contrast to the glorious colours in the upper chambers. Perhaps the staircase was gloomier in Walpole’s time. But then he did not have a modern day Health and Safety Executive to contend with. The walls of the staircase had been lined with paper commissioned by Walpole and inspired by the chantry of Prince Arthur at Worcester Cathedral. Prince Arthur was the boy who would be king if he had not popped his clogs at 16 in 1502 allowing his younger brother, Henry VIII to ascend the throne of England. Efforts are now being made to reveal and preserve as much as possible of Walpole’s grey wallpaper, hidden beneath modern layers. What cannot be saved will be faithfully reproduced when funding permits.
As we ascended the stairs the gothic lantern threw pleasingly evocative shadows on the wallpaper. Modern replicas of antelopes (a heraldic beast found in the crest of the Earls of Orford) holding heraldic shields stand guard on the balustrades just as they would have done in Walpole’s time.
The little galleried triple arched landing at the top of the stairs used to be known as the Armoury and Indian weaponry such as spears, bows and lances were displayed as well as a suit of armour thought by Walpole to have belonged to Francois I of France. The latter had indulged with Henry VIII in that ultimate example of little boys showing off to one another, the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Now, only the heraldic shields above the doors hint at its previous role.Inset into the ceiling of the stairwell are four rather charming trefoil windows. The lower image, taken by the Aviatrix, shows the elaborate chimneys mimicking Elizabethan originals. And so ends the second part of my tour of Strawberry Hill. I shall return to my exploration of the upper chambers of the mansion anon.