Strawberry Hill House’s story begins in 1747, when Horace Walpole discovered and purchased ‘Chopp’d Straw Hall’, one of the last remaining sites available on the banks of the Thames in fashionable Twickenham. He set about transforming what was then a couple of cottages into his vision of a ‘little Gothic castle’ with pinnacles, battlements and a round tower. Thus Strawberry Hill House was born – the House became a tourist attraction in Walpole’s lifetime and beyond.
Built as Walpole’s summer residence, the castle (or villa) soon became of interest to local inhabitants. Walpole allowed four visitors a day – with tours conducted by his house-keeper – and published rules for their guidance (no children allowed). Walpole also delighted in entertaining foreign ambassadors, royalty and English aristocracy, several of whom were near neighbours: ‘Dowagers like flounders inhabit all around,’ he wrote.
The popularity of Strawberry Hill House was a key contributing factor in the emergence of Gothic Revival architecture that grew throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, taking its inspiration from gothic cathedrals around Europe. Largely designed by Walpole’s friends, otherwise known as the ‘Committee of Taste’, which comprised John Chute and Richard Bentley, chimney pieces, doors and ceilings were based on gothic vaulting, medieval tombs and rose windows: ‘all Gothicism, gold and looking glass’ as the poet Thomas Gray described it.
Following Walpole’s death in 1797 the House passed to his cousin’s daughter and renowned sculptor Anne Seymour Damer. In 1811, the House passed to Walpole’s great niece, Elizabeth Waldegrave, and then to her grandson, John Waldegrave. John died prematurely, passing the house to his brother, George, the Seventh Earl of Waldegrave. It was now that the House nearly met its demise. Having been imprisoned for ‘riotous behaviour’, George took against Twickenham and vowed to let the House fall into ruin. He arranged the ‘Great Sale’ in 1842, where most of Walpole’s collection was sold over the course of a week.
After George’s death in 1846, his widow, Lady Frances Waldegrave was left a substantial income and, ten years later, in 1856 after her third marriage to Granville Harcourt, she put her ambitions to secure Strawberry Hill’s future into action. She began her expansion and embellishment of Walpole’s gothic castle, remaining faithful to Walpole’s vision and ideals, enlarging the hall, adding a new floor to the Gallery and pushing back the main road to create the horseshoe entrance. Lady Waldegrave then built her grand Drawing Room, Dining Room & Billiard Room, which are no longer part of Strawberry Hill House, and raised the Round Tower another storey. She also added Strawberry Hill’s signature ‘Tudor’ chimney pots in the style of Hampton Court. The House became well known in the Liberal establishment for the parties hosted by Lady Waldegrave.
After Lady Waldegrave’s death in 1879 the House was sold to the De Stern family, and then sold again in 1923 to St Mary’s University College, which still owns the site.
Born in 1717, Horace Walpole was a pivotal figure in 18th Century society, literature, art and architecture. He was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, author of ‘The Castle of Otranto’, the world’s first gothic novel, and founder of Strawberry Hill House and its vast collection of treasures.
Famous for marrying four times and saving the Strawberry Hill House from ruin- adding grand entertaining spaces now know as the Waldegrave Wing. Lady Waldegrave was as empowered as she was eccentric – a worthy successor to Horace Walpole’s legacy.
Following the purchase of Strawberry Hill House by St Mary’s Catholic College in 1923, the House became the home and teaching quarters of the Vincentian Fathers in 1925.
In 1883 Strawberry Hill was purchased by Herman, Baron de Stern (a member of the European merchant banking family, a Portuguese baron and the 13th richest man in Britain).
Strawberry Hill House’s collection was acclaimed for its eclecticism, with art, antiquities and curiosities of every period from ancient to modern. The collection is described in Walpole’s very own catalogue, ‘A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole.’