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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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