Going Gothic at Strawberry Hill House

Horace Walpole, painted by John Giles Eccardt in 1754.

This excursion report was first shared on the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar (CRECS) blog. You can find the original post here.

On 1 March, 2015 the Walpole Trust reopened Strawberry Hill House to the public. As the former home of Horace Walpole, famed (and famously eccentric) author of the first Gothic novel, the house has been a popular tourist destination since it was first built up in 1749.

At noon on 16 May, 2017, twenty-three students and scholars from Cardiff University stepped blinking into the parking lot of Strawberry Hill House, out of the darkened bus that had carried them from rainy Wales. The weather in Twickenham was hardly Gothic-appropriate, but since the tour of the house had been arranged for the late afternoon, we had several hours to eat our bag lunches, stretch our legs in Strawberry Hill’s gardens, and snag a leisurely drink along the sunny banks of the Thames. By the time we returned to the House at 4 p.m., the group was happy, slightly sunburnt, and ready to be thrilled, amazed, and educated about Walpole’s ‘little Gothic castle’.

Gothic History

Our guide was Carole, a soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit and extensive knowledge of Strawberry Hill’s history, heritage, and restoration. The tour began outside the house, where we learnt how Strawberry Hill went from a small cottage to the massive, three-part castle it is today. Following Walpole’s death in 1797, the residence passed to various relatives, many of whom led quite dramatic lives. The stories Carole shared included the Engilsh sculptor (and wealthy widow) Anne Seymour Damer, illegitimate heiresses, a ‘slightly illegal wedding’, and a fall into debt that resulted in the sale of most of the house’s contents.

Strawberry Hill House after the 2012 renovation.

In 1861, the thrice-married Countess Frances Waldegrave took up residence. She established the House as a thriving social salon after her fourth marriage to Liberal politician Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, who encouraged her to buy back some of the auctioned-off estate. In 1923 the House was bought by St Mary’s University, which still has its campus in the western wing.

A grand Gothic fireplace is the centrepiece of the purple bedroom. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Through this intricate history, Strawberry Hill House was rebuilt and redecorated again and again. When the Walpole Trust set about restoring it to its original glory in the twenty-first century, the first question was how to go about it. After all, there was nothing ‘original’ about the House to begin with—from its revivalist architecture to its papier-mâché walls and ceilings, Strawberry Hill House is fake through and through.

In this, it is utterly Gothic. As Catherine Spooner notes, ‘[t]he construction of fake histories is integral to Gothic texts’.[1] Jerrold Hogle, likewise, writes that the Gothic is ‘grounded in fakery’ from its earliest origins.[2] Walpole himself famously stated that ‘my buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead’, but today the House seems as solid as ever.

Gloomth and Glory

Our Cardiff tour group took the same route Walpole’s own guests would have, entering onto the base of a dark, curving staircase and ending in a series of glorious gold and blood-red chambers on the upper levels. Virtually every room is decorated in a different, vibrant colour, though all radiate that wonderful ‘gloomth’ (Walpole’s own word, a counterintuitive combination of ‘gloom’ and ‘warmth’) which continues to be so characteristic of both his house and the Gothic genre he initiated. One bedroom, painted a deep lilac and ornamented in pale wood, was apparently never even used. Of the libraries—Walpole had three at Strawberry Hill—the opposite was true. He read voraciously, and none of his books were just for show.

One of Walpole’s three libraries. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

The Castle of Otranto is visibly linked to the house in which its author first dreamt of it, and Walpole himself described Strawberry Hill as ‘the scene that inspired’ the novel. The play between light and dark in the house alone is fascinating, as sunlight and candlelight cast marvellous shadows through the intricate designs in the windows, walls, and balustrades. At the top of Strawberry Hill’s gloomth-laden staircase, Carole read us a passage from the Castle of Otranto, inviting us to imagine walking through the house’s halls at night, by the light of a single candle.

Carole reads to us from The Castle of Otranto. Photo by Michael Goodman.

One of the tour’s undergraduate attendees, Laura Robinson, comments on this aspect of the House as well, suggesting: ‘It cannot be doubted that Horace Walpole’s eccentric and unique Strawberry Hill House reflects the Gothic literary tradition that began in the Romantic Period. Strawberry Hill’s architecture and the atmosphere created inside the house itself through the manipulation of light—particularly surrounding the staircase—creates a Gothic impression that we still recognize today’.

Restoration and Revival

The final room of the tour. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Throughout the tour, we saw signs of the restoration project still underway. Teams of volunteers have re-painted, re-woven, and re-embroidered the House’s various embellishments, using historically accurate techniques. The House also contains several pieces of furniture built to spec by the students of a nearby design school. The restoration workers were able to reproduce these designs so faithfully both because Walpole describes them extensively in his records, and because he commissioned a series of watercolours detailing each of the rooms. Even when it was brand new, then, Strawberry Hill House was already busy writing its own history.

Ironically, the pieces of the restoration that felt most faithful in light of Strawberry Hill House’s elaborate self-performance and fakery were not the painstakingly hand-embroidered bedclothes, but the digitally-reproduced sketches and paintings, machine-copied down to the last bump of oil paint. In one of the bedrooms hangs a magnificent, 3D-printed picture frame, which was then gilded and retouched using traditional methods. It perfectly embodies the elaborate, delightful sham that is Strawberry Hill House.

This 3D-printed frame was photographed from 400 different angles so it could be reproduced. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

All in the Details

In addition to the grand history Carole shared with us, small details and stories gave us a glimpse into Walpole’s own person and psyche. A muted, pastel-green room once contained Walpole’s curio collection, including numerous heirlooms from his beloved mother. In the dining room hangs a portrait of Walpole’s deceased aunt, who allegedly haunted the house. The legend varies: she either died of smallpox or was pushed down the stairs. Through the window of the best bedroom, we even got a glimpse of the cottage where Walpole would hide himself away during tours of Strawberry Hill House.

Walpole’s cottage hideway has been sold off and expanded since his death, but the building still stands. Photo by Megen de Bruin-Molé.

As Josie Powell, one of the undergraduate students on the tour, relays: ‘Strawberry Hill embodies all the typical Gothic conventions; vast spaces and dark colours create a sense of entrapment. Yet Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is more than just a Gothic building. It contains so much attention to detail that it is an invaluable example of social history’.

We are very grateful to CRECS (who generously organised and funded the tour), to Learning and Education Coordinators Sally Stratton and Charlotte Hawkes, and to our fabulous guide Carole, who made the house and its tales come alive for us in all their Gothic glory.

CRECS goes Gothic at Strawberry Hill House. Photo by Michael Goodman.


[1] Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 38.

[2] Jerrold E. Hogle, ‘The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp. 496–509 (p. 497).

Fantasies of Cardiff Bay Opera House

Culturalfantasies_smallThis week a lot of work has gone into the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium that I’m organising with Tom Harman. The event will take place at Cardiff University on 23 May, and the programme and registration will hopefully go live sometime next week.

Today, the finishing touches have been put to the event poster (pictured left), which features a rather abstract black-and-white image. This image is of an architectural model – more specifically, a model for Cardiff Bay Opera House. It can’t be found on most websites about the Opera House, however. You also won’t find this building anywhere in Cardiff today.

What is the story behind this image, and why have we chosen to use an architectural model on the poster for a fantasy symposium? The obvious answer is that, as both a Welsh monument and a structure that today exists purely in the imagination, the Opera House applies directly to our location and theme. But beyond that there’s a slightly more convoluted story that bears telling.

The Cardiff Bay Opera House than never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.
The Cardiff Bay Opera House that never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.

Back in the early ’90s, as part of the UK’s massive Millennium Commission, it was decided that Cardiff needed a landmark building to put it on the map. An opera house would be built as part of the ongoing renovations to Cardiff Bay, and various architects would compete to design this iconic structure. Alun Michael, a former Cardiff city councillor, even made a link between the ambition of the Cardiff project and the famous Sydney Opera House:

Sydney, as a city, was an empty space in people’s minds until the Opera House was built. We need a similar sort of building in Cardiff for us to make our mark.

The project was announced and the proposals rolled in. Our poster image comes from a proposal by Greg Lynn’s architectural firm FORM, which, in the lofty language of this paper in Assemblage (April 1995), highlights ‘biological processes of growth and change to trope traditional architectural design assumptions[, and takes] the computer as a generative instrument for systems of symmetrical and asymmetrical organization using theories of biological variation’. In simpler terms, the Opera House they imagined taps into the popular trend of ‘sustainable architecture’, maximising the building’s integration into its location and minimising environmental impact. It strives to build something as aesthetically close to a living organism as possible.

Image © Greg Lynn FORM
Image © Greg Lynn FORM.

This is not the proposal that ultimately triumphed, however. The project went to Zaha Hadid’s lovely ‘inverted necklace’, planned to at once adorn the crescent of Cardiff Bay and become its crown jewel.

Painting © Zaha Hadid Architechts
Painting © Zaha Hadid Architects.

It was not to be, however, and Hadid’s plans were announced to substantial media controversy. When the funding bid for Cardiff Bay Opera House was officially rejected, three days before Christmas in 1995, Hadid cited prejudice against her gender and race as a primary cause. Author Nicholas Edwards (a.k.a. Nicholas Crickhowell) writes:

If she had been male, white and Welsh would it have been different? I do not know. I hope not. There are those who tell me I am naive. I really don’t know … I suspect that if it had been a young Welsh-speaking architect who had suddenly produced the design, the Western Mail might have taken a different line.

Others cited lack of public support for the design, and the push for sports over the arts with the construction of Millennium Stadium. Perhaps the most common word thrown around about the Cardiff Bay Opera House was ‘elitist’, a label that was perhaps understandable given the cultural connotations of opera today, but largely under-informed when applied to this project.

The Times Higher Education has a thorough article that attempts to unpack the various causes. Those interested in reading more about the failed bid can also pick up Nicholas Crickhowell’s Opera House Lottery: Zaha Hadid and the Cardiff Bay Project from Amazon for a mere £10. You can also view many of the original materials relating to the project at the National Library of Wales’ Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust Archive.

Whatever the reason for the project’s failure, it is now (again in the words of Alun Michael) ‘the most famous unbuilt building in Wales.’ Indeed, in 2011 it became the most famous rebuilt building in China, as Zaha Hadid’s rejected design was eventually applied to the Guangzhou Opera House. The Wales Millennium Centre (in Welsh: Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru) now stands where the Cardiff Bay Opera House would have.

Zaha Hadid’s design lives on in the Guangzhou Opera House.

Before it was even built – or to put it in the terms of our symposium, while it was still a fantasy – the Cardiff Bay Opera House brought a whole slew of the social and political issues in Wales to light. For us, then, this image serves as a striking visual reminder of the way even our unrealised ideas have power, and remain with us. For whom do we build culture, and what impact can seemingly innocuous and apolitical projects have on our society?

The problems and discussions surrounding the Cardiff Bay Opera House are echoed in various ways through much of contemporary fantasy. What kinds of fantasies are currently at play in our culture? Join us on 23 May at Cardiff University and find out!

The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: 'In these stones / horizons / sing', © Gwyneth Lewis.The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: ‘In these stones / horizons / sing’. © Gwyneth Lewis.

Poster image © Greg Lynn FORM, in Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Nanako Umemoto, ‘Computer Animisms (Two Designs for the Cardiff Bay Opera House)’, Assemblage, 26 (1995), 8–37 (p. 12).