Strawberry Hill: Walpole's fairytale palace is restored to former glory

As the dew dries on Twickenham’s back gardens, the sun sparkles on a fairytale Gothic palace spun out of snowy sugar that appears to have landed like an alien in Strawberry Hill, just west of Richmond.
It is so crisp, with towers, turrets and battlements, that you expect a medieval jouster to trot round the corner, lance in hand, or a damsel in a cone headdress to peer from a stained glass window.
 
Which is precisely the effect its owner wanted. For this was the magical home on water meadows that once led all the way to the river, designed and built by Horace Walpole, son of famous and powerful Sir Robert, to this day Britain’s longest-serving prime minister from 1721 to 1742.
 
Despite once being the most written-about house in the country, Strawberry Hill fell into disrepair. In the Nineties it languished on the At Risk register, riddled with dry rot.

Now, after 15 years’ work and more than £10 million funding, some from the Heritage Lottery, this extraordinary place has been restored to its breathtaking former glory. The final, five-year phase, restoring the private rooms that were never open to the public before now, has just been completed.
 
A prolific letter writer and novelist (The Castle of Otranto was the first Gothic novel), Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was ahead of his time.
 
The vividness of his colourful imagination pre-dated the pre-Raphaelites: if the Lady of Shalott had a home, this would be it.
 
Born with a big silver spoon in his mouth, aged 22 Horace went on the Grand Tour, where he revelled in French medieval architecture. Back in England in 1745, he inherited his father’s estate, and in 1749 bought Chopp’d Straw Hall in Twickenham, a rustic five-acre plot with a couple of cottages on it.
 
Over the next 30 years he proceeded to build Strawberry Hill House which, in his 4,000 letters, he referred to as his ‘little Gothic castle’. During its loving and lavish construction, it acquired fan vaulting, decorative fretwork and fabulous trompe-l’œil faux carving.
 
For the overall mood, Horace and his friend, architect John Chute, were inspired by cathedrals such as Westminster and Lourdes. Fire surrounds were ornately carved and then painted to look like Portland stone; the ceilings were plastered, then decorated with complex patterns of lath and papier-mâché, some with gilding on top.
 
The windows were adorned with bits of stained glass, some of it royal, collected on Horace’s travels.
 
Both the important gallery, gloriously red and gold, and the library, are stunning Gothic follies in their own right. The central staircase is a masterpiece of original carving, each newel post topped by an antelope whose eyes follow you as you mount, rising up to four clover-leaf clerestories in the dome at the top.
 
Outside Horace’s own bedroom hangs a suite of armour that he claimed was medieval jousting armour, but in fact was made up of bits and bobs cobbled together from the Civil War. This, too, has been recreated.
 
Into this rich setting, Horace crammed hundreds of paintings and furniture, particularly ornately-carved ebony, and entertained politicians, poets and royalty. He also allowed four members of the public to visit each day (though no children) — often retiring to a cottage in the grounds while his housekeeper showed the plebs around.
 
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Family ties: Horace Walpole, son of powerful Sir Robert, in a 1754 portrait by John Giles Eccardt

What’s exciting about this final phase of restoration is that we can now see Horace’s private rooms. Here, in three various bedrooms — plus the purple-painted Holbein Room (once hung with Holbeins, both real and traced), the Breakfast Room, and the tiny green-flocked writing room off it (called the closet, which was hugger-mugger with more than 100 pictures) — his taste was very different.
 
All was done in the craze of the day — flock wallpaper in searingly strong blues, golds, greens and crimsons, and plumply overstuffed sofas. Visually it looks more 1880 than 1780. But then, Horace was a trailblazer.
 
In the Holbein Room, the walls were not flocked, but painted a pulsing, ecclesiastical mauve made by mixing blue verditer with cochineal, while one bedroom is pure blue verditer, a copper oxide that imitates costly lapis lazuli.
 
Teams of restorers, paint analysts, carvers and painters slaved to recreate these vibrant colours. Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, from Lacquer Studios, mixed sample after sample, until they matched tiny scrapes of original colours.
 
The flock wallpapers (which can’t legally be made in England any more because of the health risks of production), were done using hand-made Irish paper flocked to the original strident colour schemes in America.
 
This magnificent building, as close a thing to a unicorn as you will ever see roaming these meadows, is definitely worth a ride.
 
Get the look
  • Flock wallpapers by Adelphi Paper Hangings at www.adelphipaperhangings.com (USA)
  • Hand-made paper by Griffen Mill at www.griffenmillhandmadepaper.com
  • Stained glass by the Cathedral Studios at www.stained-glass-studio.org.uk
  • Architectural carving by Ben Harms at www.mastercarvers.co.uk, and Royal Warrant holder Ray Dudman at www.thomasrestorations.com
  • Lead paints hand mixed by Pedro da Costa Felgueiras at Lacquer Studios, www.lacquerstudios.com
 
Strawberry Hill House is at 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, TW1 (www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk)

Photographs: Kilian O’Sullivan

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