Wednesday 12 September 2012

Visiting Strawberry Hill. Research, or just having fun?

I've got a taste for Gothic revival architecture. I've also got the glimmerings of a plot  for a book that will allow me to indulge my interest. So my most recent trip to London included a long awaited pilgrimage to Strawberry Hill, the grand-daddy of Gothic flights of fancy, created by Horace Walpole, who is also credited as the creator of the Gothic novel tradition.

I think there may be a pattern emerging here.  Books, and over-the-top architecture?

Walpole's house has recently been restored - it's mostly empty, but the rooms are magnificent, if you like that sort of thing, and I do. It's also not what you anticipate from a Gothic mansion. Gothic these days conjures up unrelieved black, skulls, bats, spider webs - very Halloween.

Strawberry Hill is not like that. It isn't like anything that you might expect. It's not on a hill, for a start. A large part of the exterior of the building is gleaming white and  although it has its share of what Walpole christened "gloomth" it is definitely not dank and dark. The gallery, in particular, is a light-filled space of red walls, mirrors and extravagant gold leaf. Walpole's idea was to create a progress though the house that involved a journey from dark to light and back again. There are cubby-hole rooms, where treasures were stored, painted windows, fireplaces based on some of the famous tombs to be found in various English cathedrals, fake cloisters and an impressive library, minus books (They are looking to fill it, should you have any antique tomes you want to dispose of.) There is/are also a very nice cafe, gift shop and knowledgeable volunteer guides stationed in every room.

The staircase where Walpole saw the vision of a mailed fist that inspired his book, The Castle of Otranto, no longer has a full set of armour on the landing, and I found the model animals holding shields on the balustrades cute rather than threatening, but it is certainly distinctive. Walpole was a magpie collector and in his time the rooms were stuffed with art and oddities, like the mirror belonging to Dr Dee, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. You have to imagine everything lit by candles, and the impact of a progress thorough the house, as made by Walpole's many visitors, to the sound of a hidden orchestra.

Walpole, it seems to me, was a showman, with a strong sense of theatre. Almost everything you see is created from wood and papier-mache, not stone or marble - the tricks of the theatre. Artifice, as high art. That ambiguity, of things not being as they seem, speaks to the thriller writer in me. I hope eventually that there will be a book in it, although probably not my version of Otranto!

It's in there. One day it will find its way out.


  1. All in the name of research, what fun :)

  2. As they always say, it's a hard job ...
    The difficult stuff starts when you're trying to write the book :)