When we visited Strawberry Hill, the Aviatrix bought me as copy of Horace Walpole’s “The castle of Otranto” from the little shop there as an early Christmas present. Last week I read it in a single sitting. It is regarded as the first gothic novel in the English language and is worth perusing for that reason alone. Walpole believed he was creating a new kind of genre which mixed the fantastical with modern realism. I think most modern readers would find the magical elements distinctly absurd: a son and heir is crushed to death beneath a huge helmet which is conveyed by supernatural means from its normal resting place adorning a tomb in another part of the castle. Count Manfred’s desire to rid himself of his ageing wife, now that their only son has died, has echoes of Henry VIII. Like Henry, Count Manfred wishes to dissolve his marriage on the grounds that his wife was pre-contracted to another man, making their subsequent union invalid. Also, like the Tudor king, Count Manfred is convinced that God has shown his displeasure at the marriage by failing to endow it with healthy male heirs. He does have a daughter, Matilda, but she is to Manfred as the Princess Mary was to Henry VIII. In other words, Manfred dismisses all thoughts of his daughter inheriting the throne and claims that his actions are prompted by a concern for his people and the need to ensure that he is succeeded by a male heir. If it were not for that consideration Manfred piously declares, as did Henry, then he would have been more than contend to remain bound to his first wife. Curiously, like Henry Tudor, Manfred’s pangs of conscience concerning the validity of his marriage reach a peak of intensity when a comely young maiden steps into view. But Isabella, once destined to be his late son’s bride, is no Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon for that matter. She has no intention of marrying the father now that the son is dead. Throw into the mix a handsome and brave young man, who turns out to be of noble birth, the murder of a beautiful and innocent young maiden and various unworldly events and you have the plot in a nutshell. It is pure bunkum but constitutes a jolly good read.
Having left the ground floor Great Parlour, we proceeded up the staircase. The walls of the latter were lined with grey wallpaper, especially commissioned by Walpole and inspired by the tomb of King Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur. That is why I think the similarity between Manfred’s and King Henry VIII’s matrimonial aspirations is more than merely coincidental.
Passing through the empty Armoury we ventured into the Gothic Library. This is without doubt one of the most impressive rooms in the house. The Gothic Library was inspired by drawings of the medieval St Pauls' Cathedral by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar, who ended his days in abject poverty. How ironic then that the largest collection of his etchings and drawings should now belong to one of the richest women in the world; namely,the Queen of England. Many of Hollar's drawings and etchings can now be found at Windsor Castle. Hollar's medieval St Paul's Catherdral fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was replaced by Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece. Although the delicate tracery of the gothic arched bookcases had needed to be repaired, we were told that did not hold true for the painted ceiling, with its heraldic shields and helmets. The guide swung open the hinged upper part of one of the bookcases to demonstrate how the books would have been accessed from the shelves behind. Given his status in English Literature I am sad to report that the shelves are bereft of books. Horace Walpole had an extensive collection being both a writer and a publisher. At one time he even had had a printing press set up in the grounds of the estate. It seems unlikely that the shelves will ever be filled again unless, as at Ham House, the trustees of Strawberry Hill are likewise left the entire collection of an antiquarian bookseller.
The dramatic chimneypiece echoed, in both style and scale, the bookcases around it as did the two wooden doors, one of which was semi-glazed. I noticed that some of the stained glass in the windows had to date from the end of the 17th century or later as they depicted both Charles I and his son, King Charles II. The guide explained that where appropriate antique glass could not be found, the roundels were set with modern clear glass.
The Holbein Chamber was originally named after the Holbein prints found in the room. There is an ornate arched pierce work screen that divides the room and a modern replica of a traditional x-shaped chair as found in all the best medieval homes. At the apex to the central arch of the screen is a man’s head in profile sporting a rather natty hat. The nose looks too pronounced to be that of Walpole himself.
The fireplace boasts yet another elaborate chimneypiece, this time inset with its own mirror. According to Horace Walpole the paper- mâché ceiling is based on the one adorning the Queen’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle. The mind boggles as to how Horace Walpole became so well acquainted with such an intimate part of the Queen’s private suite of rooms in the royal palace. On reflection, given his own spotless reputation as far as the ladies or indeed gentlemen were concerned, Horace might well have been gleaned his knowledge first-hand from Henrietta Howard. In her youth she had been a lady-in-waiting to the queen and a mistress of the reigning king. The wages of sin enabled her to build the elegant neo-Palladian mansion at Marble Hill.
The Gallery was grandest and therefore principal room where Walpole entertained his guests. It is almost blinding in its sumptuous colour scheme after the sober and restrained colours of the hall and staircase. The walls have recently been relined with crimson Norwich damask and the white paper-mâché ceiling restored and re-gilded. It seems that when the modern restoration was being carried out in the Gallery, they discovered some comments written by Victorian workmen hidden under the panelling. They complained of the bitter cold and the fact they were not allowed to light fires to warm themselves by.
The Round room leading off the Gallery has a gilded ceiling, though less ornate than the Gallery, and the same crimson damask lining the walls. For some inexplicable reason I cannot recall seeing the scagliola (coloured and highly polished imitation marble) chimneypiece based on the tomb of Edward the Confessor on Westminster Abbey. Ham House boasts a striking scagliola chimneypiece in the Queen’s Closet built for Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza.
The final grand room on display was the Tribune. This jewel like room with its domed roof and gilded plasterwork from floor to ceiling served a similar purpose to the Green Closet at Ham House Walpole’s displayed his most valuable pictures and other treasured possessions within its walls. Apparently the door to this room had a small grill inset so that the less exalted visitor could only stare longingly through it to the wonders on display beyond, they being deemed unworthy to set foot into the Tribune itself.
The Great North Bedchamber was not open when we toured the villa in December 2010. However, using my credentials as the Brimstone Butterfly, amateur historian extraordinaire, and the Aviatrix’s as a putative guide, we persuaded one of the staff to let us take a peek past the closed door. The room was filled with scaffolding and it was clear there was still a lot of work to be done. It is to be hoped that this room will be finished by the time the villa re-opens its doors on 2nd April 2011.
There is a little narrow passageway leading to the Gallery. When I looked through my images later, I realised I had captured the Aviatrix inadvertently playing peek-a-boo as she tried to remain out of view.
Having been through the villa twice, we made our way to the ground floor and the museum room. This had been the servants’ hall in Walpole’s time but now displays a range of items related to Horace Walpole and later owners of the house. Across the way from it is the café. I captured a member of staff up on a step ladder busy cleaning the windows of the café in the little video footage I took of the exterior of the house..
In December 2010 it was clear that the restoration programme at Strawberry Hill was still very much a work in progress. We were told that there were plans to commission replicas of some of the furniture Horace Walpole used. In light of that news, I was rather pleased that I had the chance to wander around the empty but newly decorated chambers. It will be fascinating to see how the house will look when the restoration is finally complete. A member of staff told me that they were pleased at the numbers of people that had come along to the preview days last winter. It is to be hoped that even more people will take the opportunity to view this extravagant jewel of a Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill when it reopens again for the season in April 2011.
More details of opening times can be found at the Strawberry Hill website
More details of opening times can be found at the Strawberry Hill website