Mirinda’s Reading Group recently read The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (the son of Britain’s first Prime Minister) and it was suggested that the group, along with other halves, visit his house at Strawberry Hill. Today was the day for our visit.
The only other member of the group who met us there was Ruth, along with her husband Roger. They drove while we, having read on the website that parking was very limited, took a plethora of trains. In retrospect, we could have taken Max. Still, the trains were okay…if somewhat roundabout. Besides, the weather was kind and it meant Mirinda could relax and I didn’t have to suffer any NEA*.
We met Ruth and Roger at the outdoor cafe and had a splendid lunch before joining the rest of our timed visit companions at the front door of Horace’s ‘castle’.
And what an extraordinary place. Purists think it’s a bit of a mish-mash and, therefore, not worthy of much comment, however, I like the rambunctious disregard for design rigour displayed throughout the place: he designed it the way he liked.
“It was built to please my own taste, and in sole degree to realize my own vision.” Horace Walpole, A Description of the Villa.
And how could you fail to like a guy who not only opened his house to visitors but also wrote a guide book for them, pointing out the various things they should look out for. While we didn’t have Horace’s excellent tour guide cum housekeeper, we did have the edited version of his guide book.
He built the house in stages, completing it in 1790 with the intention of it being his ‘summer villa.’ Of course, Strawberry Hill sat in lovely isolation back then while today it is just another leafy part of London with the ocassional noisy jet flying overhead.
The house grew from the foundations of an existing house called Chopp’d Straw Hall which belonged to Elizabeth Chevenix, seller of trinkets or ‘toywoman’ to give her the contemporary job title. Her smaller, more modest dwelling, became the core of the castle to come.
While all of his possessions (including furniture) was sold off in The Big Sale of 1842, the Strawberry Hill Trust is always trying to buy things back. Subsequently a lot of the rooms are empty but, even so, they give the visitor an excellent idea as to how it may have looked when Horace lived there. And, of course, the guidebook is invaluable.
Incidentally, Horace printed the guidebook himself. He was pretty keen on doing things himself and had set up a printing press in order to self-publish. It was from the display of the printing materials at the top of the house that I discovered the origin of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ case.
Printers would store their collection of letters in large cases, one above the other. For ease and because it makes perfect sense, the capital letters were kept in the upper case and the lower case…well, you get the idea. This is probably a rather easy bit of etymology but I didn’t know it so I reckon it’s a pretty cool discovery, well worth the price of admission.
Each room has a steward in it who, according to the lady who let us in the front door, should be able to answer any questions we might have. This proved not to be the case in the library, however.
The room is lined with bookshelves, each with a Gothic front. In the centre of each arched opening there is a letter painted on the wood above the books. Looking around the room, it was soon apparent that the letters only went as far as ‘M’. I tried to think of some strange librarian system that would fit such a limited alphabet.
A fellow visitor went so far as to ask the steward in the room. She wondered whether Walpole only had books by authors whose surnames started with letters A to M, ignoring the rest..including himself, seemingly. The steward didn’t know.
I had more luck with a steward in another room who gloried in telling me how the room we were in was for the display of raunchy pictures, none of which remained. A shame, I said, to which she agreed wholeheartedly. Possibly a little too wholeheartedly.
She may have been a little more enthusiastic because she figured I wasn’t that keen on the big golden room. This was the Gallery where Horace did most of his entertaining. She was wrong. I didn’t mind the Gallery though, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to own it.
While I loved the house and thoroughly enjoyed wandering the rooms, the thing I really enjoyed was the exhibition of artworks by Laura Ford. Her Weeping Girls were fantastic. Two of them were hiding in the Priory Garden and looked like they’d just stepped out of The Ring.
Something I didn’t quite understand but also rather liked were the human sized cats, seemingly wandering the lawn, thoughtful and concerned about…well, the shortage of mice, perhaps.
Apparently it’s a deconstruction of the Adam and Eve expulsion from paradise myth. That’s going just a little bit too far down Nonsense Road, even for me. I firmly believe that artists (particularly conceptual artists) should create a piece, name it something vague and then leave the viewer to interpret it. If that was the case then this is how I’d interpret the cats:
The cats symbolise big business executives, strolling around trying to think of more imaginative ways to make money. Cats, seen through the eyes of non-cat people tend to look sneaky with a viciousness just beneath the fur, the perfect view of a hard nosed business exective. The fact that their faces can’t be seen shows the facelessness of the ‘overlords’ controlling our money and, therefore, our lives. See? Makes more sense than god telling Adam and Eve to get out of Eden for eating fruit.
Anyway, I rather enjoyed Ms Ford’s work regardless of HER interpretation of one of the pieces.
But it was all too soon time to leave so we hopped, once more, on our myriad of trains, getting home to two very excited puppies and copious amounts of freely distributed Emma juice. We really are going to have to start locking them out of the house in future.
* Navigational Error Abuse