Gothic, gothic, gothic.
Frankenstein and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Twilight and all that jazz.
It all began at a small house somewhere on the outskirts of Twickenham, some time round about 1763 or thereabouts.
If we accept that Horace Walpole, flamboyant guru of the gothic revival, was the father of the gothic novel, then I can pinpoint not just the house, but the very spot where the glorious theatricality of the gothic novel began.
And this Christmas, for the first time for many years, that very spot was open to the public.
But I race ahead.
Horace Walpole came of a family of clever politicians; his father was the first prime minister of England, Sir Robert Walpole. But, while he did become a member of Parliament, Horace had the means and the inclination to cultivate a reputation as a man of taste and style.
The writer of this blog is no stranger to Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, the house which began as a cottage and was souped up by Horace into a magnificent gothic mansion which, even in his own day, attracted day trippers to visit the house and gaze in awe. Walpole loved his mediaeval history, and plundered its art and architecture to create something new and startling in sleepy Twickenham, on the outskirts of London. He even had two friends work with him to sit as a ‘Committee Of Taste’, determining what should be used to transform the unassuming little cottage into a mediaeval setting. The walls of the great gothic staircase were hung with bespoke wallpaper fashioned after the designs at Prince Arthur’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral.
Eccentric, outrageous and quite wonderful, the house is well worth a visit.You can read more about the extraordinary Strawberry Hill House here.
But they have been working very hard at Strawberry Hill to recreate it as it was in its heyday. Two floors have been open for some time now. It was acquired by a trust in 2007 and opened, partially restored, after a £9 million restoration, in 2010.
For the first time this Christmas, the top floor, and Horace Walpole’s bedroom were available for day trippers to wander in and gawk at once more.
It was this very house which inspired the beginnings of The Castle Of Otranto. Walpole woke one night from a dream – half-woke, perhaps – and, wandering out onto the landing at the top of his artfully designed gothic staircase, he saw a giant armoured fist hovering at the centre of the space.
The story this vision inspired is very much of its time and fearfully dated; it concerns the adventures of Manfred, Lord of the Castle, and his dastardly doings. But it was the novel that set the gothic gravy train on the rails, and it’s still runaway today.
And when you walk out of Walpole’s bedroom and stand at the stairs, and gaze down at the carefully recreated and restored old staircase which works its way around a core of space at the centre to the house: one knows it is all smoke and mirrors, that even the beginning of the gothic revival had more than a whiff of hot air about it. But the very thought of the great mediaeval gauntlet cannot help but send a shiver up the spine.Especially as dusk falls and the lighting in the house is kept to a minimum.
It is all most gratifyingly gothic.