Grand Day Out | Strawberry Hill House

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Back in January the Book God and I took a short trip to Strawberry Hill to visit an exhibition and just generally have a look around. Shamefully, despite the fact that I have lived not too far away for over 30 years, this was my first visit but I know I will be going back as it is just so fascinating.

Strawberry Hill House was built over a period of some 40 years by Horace Walpole as a summer retreat; it was a very early example of Gothic revival architecture (one of my favourites of course). Walpole used it as a place to keep his collection of art, antiquities and objects of interest from all historical periods. He was a man who collected things that were beautiful or historically important or had some kind of story attached to them, rather than focussing on a particular country or era.

As well as his summer home, Strawberry Hill House was also a place for holding parties, a place to study, open to select groups of the public to tour and see the amazing things it held, and of course it was the inspiration for his Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.

In 1842 Walpole’s collection was sold off, and the exhibition we went to see (The Lost Masterpieces) was the first chance to see these items in the place they originally belonged.

Things that caught my interest in particular:

  • an enormous Chinese porcelain bowl from 1730 in which Walpole’s cat Selina drowned, inspiring Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat – drown’d in a tub of goldfishes
  • a red Cardinal’s hat, said to be that of Cardinal Wolsey
  • a portrait of Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and sister to Henry VIII, with her second husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
  • a tress of hair of said Mary Tudor in a golden locket
  • a cravat carved out of lime wood by Grinling Gibbons – this was something Walpole himself wore on at least one occasion
  • a pair of gauntlet gloves worn by James VI & I (allegedly)
  • a 1782 edition of the Castle of Otranto

I loved the house, it’s so beautiful and the gardens look equally lovely though on the day we visited it bucketing with rain so we decided not to walk round; we’ll keep that for the next time. Visitors are understandably not allowed to take photographs but there is a very good app which lets you study the object and is worth downloading. You can find it here.

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