The following excerpts from Chapter III of Charles L. Eastlake's History of the Gothic Revival deal with the background to author and politician Horace Walpole's house at Strawberry Hill, and its eye-catching exterior. The first part provides the early context of the Gothic Revival, and gives useful insights into the mind-set of one of the most influential early Revivalists. Walpole's house, built from 1749-76 with the help of architects William Robinson and later James Essex, has interior work by Richard Bentley, John Chute, Thomas Pitt, and Robert Adam, and attracted an enormous amount of interest from his contemporaries. Walpole was even forced to limit the number of visitors, and provide a written guide to it. The excerpts from Eastlake's account have been edited, formatted and illustrated for our website by Jacqueline Banerjee, who also added the headings, captions and links. Omissions from the original text, and page numbers in the original text, are both indicated in square brackets. [Photographs by the current editor, except for the one of the "Chapel in the Woods," which is reproduced here by courtesy of the excellent website London Number One. You may use the other photographs without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one. Click on them for larger images.]

Strawberry Hill

The recently restored Strawberry Hill House, seen most comprehensively from the south-east. These are, in fact, the main façades. Along the whole length of the long "Great Cloister" on the ground floor of the southern wing runs the first floor picture gallery, the interior of which is shown in the next part of the extract.

The "Waning Cause" of the Gothic in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

In the history of British art there is one period more distinguished than another for its neglect of Gothic, it was certainly the middle of the eighteenth century. In a previous age architects had not been wanting who endeavoured to perpetuate the style whenever occasion offered, and when the taste of their clients raised no obstacle. Wren had himself condescended to imitate in practice those principles of design which he despised in theory. But these were exceptional cases, and, as time advanced, and the new doctrine spread more widely, they became still rarer. Nor did the lovers of archaeology much help the waning cause. The old antiquarians were dead, or had ceased from their labours. Their successors had not yet begun to write. An interval occurred between the works of Dugdale and Dodsworth, of Herbert and Wood, on the one side, and those of Grose, Bentham, Hearn, and Gough, on the other — between the men who recorded the history of Mediaeval buildings in England, and the men who attempted to illustrate them. In this interval an author appeared who did neither, but to whose writings and to whose influence as an admirer of Gothic art we believe may be ascribed one of the chief causes which induced its present revival.

The "Mediaeval Predilections" of Horace Walpole (1717-1797)

Horace Walpole, third son of the Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, was born in 1718 [in fact, in 1717]. At the age of twenty his fortune was secured by some valuable sinecures, and he thus found himself enabled at an early period of his life to indulge in those tastes and pursuits which to him seemed of much more importance than his Parliamentary duties, and which have combined to render his name so famous.

It is impossible to peruse either the letters or the romances of this [42-43] remarkable man without being struck by the unmistakable evidence which they contain of his Mediaeval predilections. His Castle of Otranto was perhaps the first modern work of fiction which depended for its interest on the incidents of a chivalrous age, and it thus became the prototype of that class of novel which was afterwards imitated by Mrs. Ratcliffe and perfected by Sir Walter Scott. The feudal tyrant, the venerable ecclesiastic, the forlorn but virtuous damsel, the castle itself, with its moats and drawbridge, its gloomy dungeons and solemn corridors, are all derived from a mine of interest which has since been worked more efficiently and to better profit. But to Walpole must be awarded the credit of its discovery and first employment.

The position which he occupies with regard to art resembles in many respects that in which he stands as a man of letters. His labours were not profound in either field. But their result was presented to the public in a form which gained him rapid popularity both as an author and a dilettante. As a collector of curiosities he was probably influenced more by a love of old world associations than by any sound appreciation of artistic design. In this spirit he haunted the auction rooms, and picked up a vast quantity of objects that were destined by-and-by to crowd his villa at Twickenham. Nothing to which the faintest semblance of a legend attached was too insignificant for his notice. Queen Mary's comb. King William's spur, the pipe which Van Tromp smoked in his last naval engagement, or the scarlet hat of Cardinal Wolsey, possessed for him an extraordinary interest. But among these relics he acquired much that was really valuable in the way of old china and stained glass, and thus formed the nucleus of what at one time promised to become an important Mediaeval museum. The acquisition of these treasures could not but influence his taste, which has been ably defined by an eminent writer of our own day. "He had," says Lord Macaulay, "a strange ingenuity peculiarly his own, an ingenuity which appeared in all that he did, in his building, in his gardening, in his upholstery, in the matter and in the manner of [43-44] his writings. If we were to adopt the classification — not a very accurate classification — which Akenside has given of the pleasures of the imagination, we should say that with the Sublime and the Beautiful Walpole had nothing to do, but that the third province, the Odd, was his peculiar domain." It was probably this eccentricity of taste, combined with his fondness of Mediaeval lore, which induced him to imitate, in the design of his own dwelling, a style of architecture which by this time had fallen into almost universal contempt.

Walpole's "Little Plaything House"

Strawberry Hill, east front

The east front: "Over the east porch a stepped gable rises, lighted by an oriel window and ornamented at its upper end by a wooden cross let in flush with the plaster. At the apex of the roof is another (Maltese) cross by way of finial" (Eastlake 46). A detail of the oriel is shown below.

On the grounds now known as Strawberry Hill, there existed, towards the middle of the last century, a small cottage, built by a person who had been coachman to the Earl of Bradford. It was originally intended for a lodging house, but the Fates had decreed for it a more honourable use. Even before the occupancy of the owner with whose name it will be for ever associated, it had become the residence of some notable people. The famous Colley Gibber once lived there. Dr. Talbot, then Bishop of Durham, and the Marquis of Caernarvon (afterwards Duke of Chandos), had been its tenants. It was afterwards hired by Mrs. Chenevix, a dealer in toys, at that time well known in London. It does not appear that there was anything of a Gothic character in the original structure, but it struck Walpole's fancy. He first purchased the lease of Mrs. Chenevix, and the following year bought the fee simple of the estate. In a letter to Mr. (afterwards Marshal) Conway, dated June 8th, 1747, Walpole announced that he had taken possession. "You perceive by my date," he writes, "that I am got into a new camp, and have left my tub at Windsor. It is a little plaything house that I got out of Mrs. Chenevix's shop, and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw."

Left: The less impressive north front, facing the road. Right: Approaching what Walpole himself called "the Great North Gate" (7).

This small and whimsical abode Walpole enlarged at various times between the years 1753 and 1776. He did not take down the old work, but altered it to suit his taste, and added to it bit by bit, so that the whole at length became a straggling but not unpicturesque mass of buildings. "It was," says an old writer, "the amusement of his leisure; [44-45] and, circumscribed in its dimensions as it is now seen, it enabled him to perform with sufficient success his original intention, which was that of adapting the more beautiful portions of English or Gothic castellated and ecclesiastical architecture to the purposes of a modern villa. A wide and somewhat novel field was here opened for the exercise of taste. The task was precisely suited to the talent of the designer; and this choice specimen of the picturesque effect which may be produced by a combination of the graces of ancient English style, even when those beauties are unaided by the ivyed mellowness of time, has greatly assisted in introducing a passion for the Gothic."

The "Old Entrance"

Left to right: (a) Looking west, just inside the entrance archway. (b) The small "Abbot's Garden," as Walpole called it, on the other side of the screen to the right. (c) A small oratory, with a bronze saint. (d) "The entrance to the house, the narrow front of which was designed by Richard Bentley, the only son of Dr. Bentley, the learned master of Trinity College, Cambridge" (Walpole 7). Above the door are three shields, the one in the middle being specific to Walpole, having two chevrons on either side of a band. The mix of the devotional and the heraldic here is telling.

[....]The old entrance was by a low pointed arch from which a narrow corridor led on the left hand to an inner door. This passage is decorated with mural arcuation, consisting of slender attached shafts, and tracery in low relief, the bays being separated by canopied niches, enriched internally with carved work in imitation of groining. The crockets employed in this work are of that feeble type which characterised the latest and most debased Jacobean Gothic, and the little corbels are executed in the acorn pattern which Wren so extensively used.

The main walls are of brick or rubble masonry, rough cast with plaster. Many of the doors and windows on the north side are spanned [45-46] by a pointed arch. On the first floor are several oriel and bay windows, constructed of wood, of which the upper portions are filled with stained glass. They are surmounted by a light cornice crested with wooden tracery. The west wing, in which Walpole set up his printing-press, is a battlemented building two storeys in height. It is lighted by square windows, divided by what seem to be modern casement frames into two and three compartments, and labelled above with an imitation of a Tudor drip-stone.

The West and South Fronts

Medievalising touches to the south wing. Left: The battlemented parapets, crocketted pinnacles and Tudor-style chimneys of the south front, with French Gothic influence in the round tower. Right: As Eastlake says, "The pointed windows of this wing are remarkable as bearing more resemblance to Venetian Gothic than to any English example" (46).

The portion of the building nearest the Thames is evidently the oldest part, and is said to have been the actual cottage purchased of Mrs. Chenevix. It presents two fronts, one facing the west and the other the south. A semi-octagonal porch projects from each side. The pointed windows of this wing are remarkable as bearing more resemblance to Venetian Gothic than to any English example. Their arches are cusped once on either side and terminate in that abrupt ogival curve, of which so many examples may be seen from the Grand Canal. The likeness is the more striking because the plaster is carried up to the edge of the intrados, and thus leaves the arch with no apparent voussoir. There are two storeys of these windows, the upper floor being lighted by simple quatrefoil openings about three feet across. A battlemented parapet crowns the whole. The latter feature is probably executed in lath and plaster. It is certain that the coping of both merlons and embrasures is of wood, and that wooden pinnacles occur at the angles and at regular intervals along the front. The porches on the south and east sides (also battlemented) are carried up two storeys in height. Over the east porch a stepped gable rises, lighted by an oriel window and ornamented at its upper end by a wooden cross let in flush with the plaster. At the apex of the roof is another (Maltese) cross by way of finial. The east corner of the south front is occupied by an apartment now used as a study, but which was formerly the dining-room, or, as Walpole would have it, the "refectory." It is lighted by a bay window rectangular in plan and surmounted by a wooden cresting. In the storey immediately above this is the library window, divided into three [46-47] lights by slender wooden columns. The arch over this window differs from the rest in having a flat double cusp on either side, but terminates like the others in an ogival curve. It is filled with rich stained glass. On either side above it, and lighting the same chamber, are two quatrefoil openings similar to those we have described. A chimney shaft projects on the east side and is carried up straight to about three-fourths of its height, where it is splayed back in the usual manner. The window heads of the south porch are flatter than the rest, but preserve the same general outline.

The upper part of the rectangular oriel above the east porch, with its stained (or, more correctly, painted) glass. Striking outside as well as inside, it indicates the role stained glass will play in the Gothic Revival.

The picture gallery runs from east to west, connecting the original tenement with the round central tower and attached staircase-turret, which Walpole built, and which have been lately carried up an additional storey in height. The west front of the gallery (standing about thirty feet from the ground) is divided into bays by buttresses, and contains two storeys, whereof the lower is occupied by servants' offices. The windows of each floor are spanned by four-centred Tudor arches. The voussoirs and quoins appear to be of stone — at all events in some portions of the work; but the whole has been so plastered over in successive renovations that it is difficult to distinguish the solid masonry from rubble-work. The upper windows are labelled with late drip-stone mouldings. The round central tower, which forms an important feature in the group, has a battlemented parapet running round the wall over a corbelled string-course. [....] [47-48]

The Chapel and the Grounds

The "Chapel in the Woods," now to be seen from the car park of neighbouring St Mary's University.

There is a small building in the garden still called the chapel, though whether that name should be retained for a room which a congregation of six people would inconveniently crowd may be doubted. Its greatest length, including the porch, is not more than fifteen feet. Internally it is about eight feet wide. The inner portion is on a sort of quatrefoil plan, of which three sides are roofed with* [48-49] plaster groining, and the fourth is left open to the porch. Ribs spring from each angle towards a quadrilateral space above, from which a pendant hangs. Each side forms a recess, of three faces, separated by a slender attached column.

The front of the porch is executed in Portland stone, and is really a very creditable performance if we consider the time at which it was erected. The upper portion is principally occupied by a three-light window spanned by a flat four-centred arch. The sill of this window is formed by a heavy stone transom, which separates it from a doorway and little window below. Three small niches occur on either side, moulded and canopied with some delicacy of workmanship. The extreme corners of the front are decorated with octagonal shafts panelled in their upper portions.

The whole of the carving, and, indeed, the general design of the chapel, has been executed with great care and more attention to detail than one might expect from such a period. Walpole's Gothic, in short, though far from reflecting the beauties of a former age, or anticipating those which were destined to proceed from a redevelopment of the style, still holds a position in the history of English art which commands our respect, for it served to sustain a cause which had otherwise been well-nigh forsaken.

Left to right: (a) Replica of the celebrated "Shell Seat" in the grounds, the original dating from the 1750s, the shell shape now created from curved laminated strips of oak. (b) Leaving the house by the north archway. (c) Another beautifully executed replica, this time of the original main gate, with its red cast-iron scrolls of strawberry plants within wooden Gothic arches.

*The completion of Walpole's villa caused a great deal of sensation at the Time, and its merits were freely discussed by the press. Some doggerel rhymes concerning it appeared in a paper called the Craftsman. The first stanza is as follows:—

Some cry up Gunnersbury,
       For Sion some declare:
And some say that with Chiswick House
       No villa can compare:
But ask the beaux of Middlesex
       Who know the country well.
If Strawb'ry Hill — if Strawb'ry Hill
       Don't bear away the bell? [48]

Related Material

Main Source

Eastlake, Charles Locke. A History of the Gothic Revival. London: Longmans, Green, 1872. Internet Archive. Web. 22 August 2014.

Headnote and Caption Material Sources

Strawberry Hill List Entry. English Heritage. Web. 22 August 2014.

"Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham. Calibre Metalwork (responsible for the metalwork on the gate). Web. 22 August 2014.

"Strawberry Hill Shell Seat." Architectural Heritage (responsible for recreating the shell seat). Web. 22 August 2014.

Walpole, Horace. A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex. Edited version in a booklet compiled and written by Carole Patey and published by the Strawberry Hill Trust, 2014. Available at the house.

Last modified 22 August 2014