Nothing could prepare me for the moment I stepped through the gate and saw the house for the first time in 20 years.
I knew they had painted it white. But such bizarre Taj-Mahal Disney-castle white! Like a gorgeous rajah’s palace, it stood stiff and outrageous, each window reminiscent of a seraglio, on the emerald lawn a stone’s throw from where the Thames used to be.
Horace -as the house’s guides like to call the inventor of the Strawberry Hill Gothic style, Horace Walpole – bought the last cottage in smart-set Twickenham with a decent view of the Thames, from a lady who made her money in trinkets. Mrs Elizabeth Chevenix hadn’t a lot of ambition for the place.
But Horace had.
The son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, educated at Eton and Cambridge, his father’s connections brought three lucrative posts which raised a tidy annual sum. He was MP for Callington, Cornwall, though he never went there. Later he was MP for Castle Rising.
And from the moment he set eyes on Chopp’d Straw Hall in 1748, he began to work on his life’s passion: its transformation into a tiny, outrageous white piece of theatre.
Having despatched the prosaic name and chosen Strawberry Hill from old archives, he collected his ‘committee of taste’ around him: amateur architect John Chute and designer Richard Bentley.
And the three of them pilfered every possible source of original gothic style.
Around 450 pieces of stained glass were fetched from Flanders. Sketches were made in cathedrals and churches, and borne triumphantly back to Twickenham. An elaborate screen from the gothic church of St Ouen in Rouen; the tomb of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey.
Galleries, huge round tower and cloisters sprung up where humble cottage had been.
Horace was a born curator, though his assumptions about some of the artefacts he collected were a little fanciful. He wanted a full set of mediaeval English kings, and was convinced he had tracked down the stone head of Henry III in a Northamptonshire church:but modern experts rebut the notion it is even a king..
“My buildings are paper, like my writings, and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead…..” he wrote in his letters. “if they had not the substantial use of amusing me while I live, they would be worth little indeed.”
He was wrong. The building enjoyed a renewed heyday under the watchful eye of Lady Frances Waldegrave, the famous hostess who used the house to entertain the Prince and Princess of Wales and everyone else who was anyone.
In 1923 it became a college, and in 1992, I arrived to study. It was shabby and lived-in, a student-pad.
And now, a £9 million makeover later, it stands there, stealing breath from the lungs with its gingerbread-mansion toytown exterior, based on an ideal of what history might have been if it were a romantic poem.
I spent hours prowling the grounds in a bracing Autumn wind: the newly replanted lime groves, the kitsch shell seat which was all the rage at the time, the entrance which includes a staged grotto to an unspecfied saint.
And inside I was prepared to mock. Poor Horace, I thought. Shaky grasp of history and even less taste.
Yet: roll up, Ladies and Gentlemen, and prepare to be amazed. The place contains room after room of carefully regulated colour, light and pattern. It has changed utterly from the tired shabby teaching college it once was. It flabberghasts, it delights, it astonishes, with gold leaf, and scarlet, and vivid blue, with light and gloomth.
No wonder people were being shown round Horace’s house during his lifetime. It is not mediaeval: it is a creation in its own right.
It is gothic.
There are days when only a red dress or a loud tie will do. And there are places designed to flaunt it, whatever it is.
And Horace Walpole was a flaunter of unparalleled audacity.