Thought of the Day

I don't believe in morality, but I believe in ethical conduct as set out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Ethical conduct = a way of behaving that respects others’ right to be happy".

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Strawberry Hill

Visiting Strawberry Hill, home to the 4th Earl of Orford, was like stepping into an era of eccentricities and extravagances. Horace Walpole bought this mansion in 1748 and, with the help of a *commission of taste*, converted it into a Gothic (revival) castle where he used to host his many celebrity friends, including the poet Thomas Gray. His creation together with his many letters offer an example of aristocratic country life in the England of 19th century.

Sketch of the house by Walpole

Tromp-d'oeils were a feature of Gothic style. The originally white facade of the house, the wooden fireplaces and barrister painted in white and even the 3-D wallpaper were all made to create the effect of stone and marble that he had so much admired in Italy during his Grand Tour. A 21st century eye could find this trick a bit cheesy, but for for most of the locals, who had never ventured outside Twickenam, this illusive result looked quite impressive.

The attention to details is another charming feature of the house. The strawberry wallpaper adorning some of the ground floor rooms was carefully chosen in different colours. Apparently, it is still possible to buy the same eccentric design (red strawberries on a blue background) at a ridiculous price. And to maximise the rare English sun, the stained glasses reflecting natural light produced mesmerising prismatic rays of colourful light. A vase full of fishes was placed in the landing just outside the main entrance and had the function of entertaining the waiting visitors.

The Library

The library, whose bookshelves were protected by shutters in the style of roman cathedrals, overlooked the garden and river, and was the owner's favourite room.

Dressing room

The dressing room, where he would write his wordy letters and entertain his guests while getting ready (a lengthy process!) shows decorations that remind the modern Art Deco style and betray some Arabic influences, to prove that Walpole was a nostalgic of the Gothic style but was also projected towards the modern style.

The nearby *Cottage in the Woods* was Walpole's retreat to escape visitors. Guests at the time would not just stay for a few days but for months and months. It is maybe from that period that the proverb "a guest is like a fish: after three days it starts smelling" was forged.

The house has miraculously resisted to the many local explosions and wars thanks to its construction technique: it is essentially made of paper and wood. So it bends but does not break.

When I studied Walpole's work at university (in particular, The Castle of Otranto - first Gothic novel in English literature featuring supernatural happenings and mysterious ambiance), I did not question his sexuality because I was told this is irrelevant to the aims of comprehending his work. Walpole's sexuality was not mentioned by our guide either and did not appear in the various guides I flicked through at the *gift shop*. But I have always been interested in the relationship between literature and biography and in the fiery debate on the *gender of writing* which started with Virginia Wolf and is still on amongst critics. So, during our tour I could not erase from my mind the suspect that he was gay. First of all, he was not married, very unusual status for the time, considering that he was rich, clever and certainly an interesting person. Plus, only an homosexual (or a woman) could have such an eclectic and flamboyant taste and a dedicated attention to the least detail... So, it was to my inner satisfaction that I found out that I was right.

A century later, one of his successors, Lady Waldegrave, a woman who got married four times, decided to restore Strawberry Hill and turn it into a place for the great political receptions of the time. She extended it, building what is today known as the *Waldegrave Drawing Room*. Thus, Strawberry Hill can be described as the product of two collaborators who never met.

Subsequently, the house was bought by an American Hotel Company and even hosted a college. Nowadays, English Heritage wants to bring it back to its original splendour, i.e. to Walpole's times, as this is the period we know more about the house thanks to his wide epistolary collection - Walpole used to send letters to his friends but would ask them back - A bizarre habit I wish I had acquired when I still used to write real letters... It would have been funny to re-read myself after years.

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