…a restoration @ the Strawberry Hill house in Twickenham

I do not particularly like visiting heritage houses. Of course I recognise that  history of architecture is recorded through buildings like Strawberry Hill house. Still most of them represent an extreme accumulation of wealth and the rigid class systems that created them. As already mentioned it goes without saying that their era’s architectural style lives on through them and in that way they are incredibly important. Strawberry Hill in particular is doubly significant being the very first of its kind.

Strawberry Hill house, view from the gardens

Strawberry Hill house, view from the gardens

Horace Walpole who created it, bought this land and the cottage that was already there in 1749 and in the following years he reinvented the house completely. It seems that Walpole was deeply fascinated with all that was dark gloomy and medieval and he dreamed of building a Gothic castle. In a way he truly did so as most gothic buildings had no fixed plans to begin with but developed gradually because of various problems that hindered their construction or due to the availability or not of funds. Thus, he proceeded to strip the originally small cottage he bought to its structural elements and along with two of his friends, John Chute and Richard Bentley, who named themselves “The Committee on taste”, started transforming and expanding the house into a gothic ‘castle’. Finally they filled it with a large collection of furniture and art works

The entrance hall of the house

The entrance hall of the house

After Walpole’s death the house passed to his cousin and eventually it was inherited by the Waldegrave family. Slowly all of his fortune was spent and every single collection item was sold in an auction. The house and land were also sold, to St. Mary’s college in 1923 and only recently they were restored and re-opened to the public. The importance of Strawberry Hill house is not exactly related to its quality as an architectural achievement. It is more associated with the fact that it signalled the beginning of Gothic revival. Until that time Gothic architecture was only a reminder of the Middle ages but Walpole with his obsession of Gothic ‘gloomth’ (his term) without realising it, started a ‘trend’ that slowly took the place of Neoclassical style that was prominent until then.

The house from outside/ Right picture: the entrance

Left :The house from the street/ Right picture: the entrance with the symmetrical drainage pipes

My visit to Strawberry Hill was interesting even though the place actually photographs better than it looks from up-close. Before even entering it I felt there was something wrong about it. Standing in front of its entrance, an employee shortly introduced us to the house’s history. A man who was apparently a heritage-house enthusiast, asked why this part of the building was painted white when the rest of it had a grey colour. The attendant explained that it was always white, still somehow we all had the impression that it wasn’t. While this conversation was taking place I looked up and saw two drainage pipes over the entrance door that also looked totally wrong, with a cheap air about them. Regardless of the fact that many people were involved in this refurbishment and a lot of money was spent on it, details like this one made me wonder about good restoration and how it is achieved.

Left: The Gallery with the golden papier-mâché ceiling /  Middle: The Tribune, the room where Walpole kept his treasures / The library

Left: The Great Parlour / Middle: Walpole’s bedroom / Right: The library

A similar example was the entrance hall’s wallpaper which actually had a cartoon-like aesthetic. Unfortunately the efforts to make it look like the original fell short and it was rather Disneyland-like The same goes for the gilded ceiling of the Gallery where the ribs were made of papier-mâché as the attendants very happily admitted. All the rooms were restored and polished to superficial perfection and everything looked brand new as if it was built yesterday. However the house was so empty that looked weird. There was literally nothing inside these rooms. They were clean and lifeless like a theatre set without actors. It really left me wishing I had visited it when it was dark and raggedy, reflecting more accurately the decline of its past glory.

Left: The Gallery with the golden papier-mâché ceiling /  Middle: The Tribune, the room where Walpole kept his treasures / Right:  The library

Left: The Gallery with the golden papier-mâché ceiling / Middle: The Tribune, the room where Walpole kept his treasures / Right: The library

Instead of furniture each space was occupied by an overly enthusiastic attendant who was ready to jump up and start narrating Walpole‘s achievement as if they were related to him by blood. All attendants had many elaborate details to share about the use of each room and its objects that were sadly nowhere to be seen.This rather overwhelming chattiness was basically the only service that justified the 8.40£ ticket that felt too expensive for what the visit had to offer.

Fireplaces. Top left: in Walpole's bedroom / Top right : in the Library / Bottom left : In the Round room / Bottom right : in the Great North Bedchamber

Fireplaces. Top left: in Walpole’s bedroom / Top right : in the Library / Bottom left : In the Round room / Bottom right : in the Great North Bedchamber

The whole experience brought to my mind another restoration, that of Stoa of Attalos in Athens. The building was one of the most impressive stoae of Athens and was constructed orgininally around 150 BC. It was destroyed in AD 267 and remained a ruin until 1950 when it was restored by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. The fact that it was refurbished to its exact original state has raised many questions throughout the years amongst architects and archaeologists who consider this a violation of the monument. The materials used came from contemporary factories hence they are too uniform and modern in order to recreate its original image.

Stoa of Attalos in Athens Greece built  from 159 BC to 138 BC and restored by the American School of Classical studies in Athens

Stoa of Attalos in Athens Greece built from 159 BC to 138 BC and restored by the American School of Classical studies in Athens. Another example of a building being refurbished to its original state

The last decades many things have changed as far as architectural conservation theories and ethics are concerned. Hence the attempt to imitate historical buildings’ original state is largely frowned upon. The discussion around preservation of historic architecture is very long and still inconclusive. Often the zeal to save a building from deterioration leads to irreversible mistakes. Considering that historic buildings exist as vessels of memory it makes one wonder if polishing them to this extreme degree serves the very purpose of preserving them in the first place. Ultimately the image of the past that they are supposed to transmit into the future is rather illusive.strawberry-hill-house5

Strawberry Hill houses website here

Wikipedia page of Strawberry hill house here

More about Horace Walpole in wikipedia here

Find out more about Gothic Revival architecture here

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6 comments
  1. spiros nasainas said:

    ωραιο!

  2. becky charles said:

    Hello!

    good piece. Just to let you know, the ceiling was always papier mache- it was in Walpole’s day. x x x

    • Hey thanks. Oh well, all the same. Even in his time the house was a bit stage-set looking i guess but thanks for pointing it out! 🙂

  3. Joshua Kaley said:

    Hello Mania,
    First let me say I applaud you creating such a website. And I certainly respect your right to your taste. I felt I had to comment on some of your comments though which is what this section is for. When you say that heritage houses represent rigid class systems and there for you are not fond of them I find that strange. You do realize that most buildings through out human history have represented rigid class systems. In Mesopotamia it was ziggurats which separated the priestly class from the masses. In Egypt the slaves built the pyramids for the kings. Now in the United States it is the Capitol houses, the Supreme Court, the White House. The rich reside there. And even in the Kremlin the elite dwell and the masses are separated. So at that point you might as well give up liking architecture. You made some good points about how significant Strawberry Hill is. The man who created the house is significant. We rely on his thousands of letters for understanding 18th century British history. The Strawberry Hill house created an entire movement of architecture- the Gothik Revival. The novel he wrote based on the house The Castle of Otranto was the first Gothic novel and influences the whole Romantic movement. Whether you hate the house or not as far as your personal tastes…you should at least respect its historical and artistic significance. In fairness to you, you did mention that it had started the Gothic Revival. I liked your points about restoration also. It is hard to decide whether it is better to restore or leave as is. And you made an excellent point about restoration having the potential to do permanent damage by creating something artificial. One thing you have to realize is that this house was created as a fantasy. It is not a manifesto or utilitarian creation. It is about the wonder of the human imagination. It is frivolous yes. A lot of Rocco period building were. But it is fun too! It is experimental. My last comment (in this way too long comment) is why pick on the poor museum attendants in the rooms (no I do not work there!)? Would you rather have corpses working there that just stare at the walls. I admire their knowledge and enthusiasm. If you need some space just tell them politely that you want to observe quietly. Oh well. I do like your photos and your blog. I would be interested in your response to this comment. Thanks.
    Regards, Joshua

    • Hello Joshua,

      First of all let me apologise for the extremely late reply to your comment. Unfortunately I was away for a few months and I did not write on the blog or checked it at all due to personal reasons. Let me start by firstly thanking you very much for taking the time to write this comment. I do appreciate it and I am flattered that people are interested in what I write. I do agree with the point you are making about architecture being historically funded by wealthy people. This is an undoubted fact. For hundreds of years that was actually the only way to create art or architecture:to manage to get the support of an art patron. However most of the times this came with a price. More often than not the oeuvre which was produced had to praise the person who funded it, or promote their very specific political or social agenda. I believe that what is hinted in most of my blog posts is that I do not believe in social structures nor patrons that exert power over people regardless of how benevolent they seem to be. Therefore i think that our disagreement is rather political than architectural.
      However I strongly believe that politics always were and in fact still are very much involved in architecture. This is ultimately what i am trying to convey with most of my articles.
      As far as the museum attendants, again I did not mean to be rude or disrespectful. What I was not pleased with was not their eagerness to provide information, but their servant-like attitude and adoration to the rich patron. That was very clear in everything they were saying.

      Let me once more thank you for your comment and I do hope that I have answered your questions

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