My story: Horace’s grand design

Michael Snodin, until recently chairman of the Strawberry Hill Trust and now its Hon. Curator, has had a distinguished career as a senior curator

at the Victoria & Albert Museum with books to his name ranging in subject from the Baroque to the social history of ornament. In recent years he has been devoted to rescuing and restoring strawberry hill, horace Walpole’s extraordinary gothic revival villa built at Richmond-upon-Thames between 1749 and 1776, and a wonder of its age visited by all levels of society from the royal family down. after years of neglect and a long fundraising programme, strawberry hill reopened in 2010.

 

What is so special about Strawberry Hill, and who was Horace Walpole? Strawberry Hill is the most significant Gothic revival building of the 18th century, which set the style known as Strawberry Hill Gothic. Gothic both inside and out, Horace Walpole conceived it as his ancient family seat: “The castle (I am building) of my ancestors”. He was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, Britain’s first Prime Minister. A historian, collector and man of taste, he devoted most of his life to the creation of Strawberry Hill and to filling it with his remarkable collection.

How and when did you first become involved? For me, it all began in 1979 with involvement in an exhibition on Walpole and Strawberry Hill at the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham, of which my wife, Patricia Astley-Cooper, was curator. With my V&A background I was as interested in the building as I was in Walpole’s great collection. At that time Walpole’s villa was lived in by the Vincentian Fathers, who ran the attached St Mary’s College.

The house had been repaired in the 1930s and 50s, but had suffered from repeated attacks of dry rot. In 1992 the Fathers left and the house entered a period of great uncertainty and physical decline, while the college (now St Mary’s University) tried to find an alternative use for the building and the means to restore it. Its rescue has been very much a story of local initiatives, with the formation of the Friends of Strawberry Hill in 2001 and a year later of the trust, which has taken a long lease on the house and its grounds.

It cost £10m to restore the house in order to open. How was it raised, how is it funded now and are you still fundraising? The Heritage Lottery Fund provided £5.7 million and the rest was nearly all donated by trusts and foundations. The crucial first grants came through the World Monuments Fund, the Robert W Wilson Challenge Fund and the Kress Foundation. Other major grants were received from English Heritage, the Weston Family Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation, the John Murray Family and the Country Houses Foundation. The  Friends of Strawberry Hill played an important part and continue to do so. We are still fundraising. The heavy cost of maintaining the building continues and our next ambition it to return Walpole’s collection to the house. We are seeking donations and sponsorship for a loan exhibition of Walpole’s treasures and to maintain our hugely successful learning and outreach programme into the future.

Why did it take Walpole so long to complete Strawberry Hill, and who designed it? Strawberry Hill grew slowly because of difficulties in buying land and because Walpole’s annual income of some £2,000, although a considerable sum at that time, also had to support his needs and the running of two houses - Strawberry Hill being his summer villa only. Most of the house was designed by gentleman amateurs, always under Walpole’s firm control. Chief among them were his friends John Chute and Richard Bentley, the first an architect and the second an artist of great imagination. A few parts were designed by professionals, including Robert Adam.

Walpole once complained about the number of visitors who insisted on seeing Strawberry Hill – “Take my advice, never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court: everybody will live in it but you”. Why was it so popular? With its gothic atmosphere Strawberry Hill was very different from the classical villas that surrounded it, and immediately attracted attention by its novelty and because of the collection it contained. It was, of course, close to London and the demand to see it meant that almost every day in the summer people of all types came by appointment (four a day, no children). Walpole was in fact rather proud that people came to see his creation, which was an expression  of his personality, while he was otherwise rather retiring.

How difficult was it to restore, and what are you most proud of in its recreation? In one sense it was easy to restore as we knew so much about its creation through Walpole’s letters and writings, drawings and other records. But when the architects, Peter Inskip and Peter Jenkins, began to unpick the building it was found to be much more complex, with layers of many periods, as well as being in an unexpectedly poor state in many areas. I think I am most proud of the amazing accuracy of its restoration, always using authentic materials and inventing almost nothing. The result is a building that conveys better than any other the true character of the early Gothic revival.

Walpole was a famous collector of art and objects of design, yet there are few in the rooms. Why? The whole collection was sold in 1842 in a famous 24 day sale. The trust is carrying out a research project to trace as many objects as possible and to bring them back as loans, gifts, purchases or under the acceptance– in-lieu scheme. We have done well so far with acquisitions of furniture and paintings. We are also commissioning replicas of key works that are hard to borrow and are planning a major loan exhibition that will bring back the works to exactly the places they occupied in Walpole’s time.

You have appointed a new director, Nick Dolan. What is his role? The director plays the central role in the direction and control of Strawberry Hill. With a change of leadership, we are reviewing all aspects of our operation to ensure we are sustainable for the future, and are relevant for our local community, our local heritage partners and the wider world.

Why is Strawberry Hill run by an independent trust rather than English Heritage or the National Trust? The lack of endowment and the condition of the building at the start made the project a difficult one for EH and the National Trust. But as an independent charitable trust, we can be flexible with our policies, decision-making and plans and have the freedom to test ideas. On the other hand, the lack of the support network of a larger organisation makes a drive for partnership working and grant and benefactor support vital.

What is happening this year, and what are your hopes for Strawberry Hill? Currently we have a wonderful exhibition in our Collector’s Collections series of botanic art, loaned by Dr Shirley Sherwood and featuring plants and flowers
in Walpole’s garden. In June and July a series of concerts will take place to complement the garden theme as well as workshops in the technique of flower painting. Other events include a fashion show by students from Wimbledon School of Art, contemporary stained glass by Rachel Mulligan and a Furniture Study Day to celebrate the acquisition of a remarkable walnut carved chair of 1603 for Strawberry Hill. There is a continuous programme of events for families, children and adults and a teacher training programme in partnership with St Mary’s University. As to the future, I see Strawberry Hill building on its reputation as a iconic landmark in Richmond’s Thames Arcadia, playing an ever more central role in the life of our community.

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