Gothic Twilight Tour

Strawberry Hill House's Gothic Twilight Tours will give visitors to the venue an opportunity to learn about the venue's intriguing artworks. Peter Gray reports.

This is your chance to take a tour of the venue which inspired the gothic tradition in literature & the arts as Strawberry Hill House throws open its doors for a series of Gothic Twilight Tours.

The home of the writer Sir Horace Walpole, the venue provided the setting for Walpole’s greatest triumph as a writer: the world’s first gothic novel, The Castle Of Otranto. The work would have a seismic impact on English literature and would also be credited for kick starting the world’s preoccupation with gothic books, films, art, and music.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Gothic Twilight Tour

The Gothic Twilight Tour will offer visitors to Strawberry Hill a thrilling insight into the spooky stories behind some of the macabre treasures that once filled the building. The house is a veritable treasure trove and the collection includes many objects that Horace Walpole would have recognised in his day.

The Portrait of Sarah Malcolm in Prison

A highlight of the collection is William Hogarth’s Portrait of Sarah Malcolm in Prison. The result of a visit by the painter to see Malcolm in her cell, the painting depicts the young Maid staring defiantly out of the picture.  Malcolm had been convicted of murdering her mistress and two other servants and Hogarth’s visit came just two days before she was hung for her crimes. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Portrait of Henry Carey

The tour will also showcase the painting which came alive in Walpole’s famous novel. The Portrait of Henry Carey, first Viscount, Falkland was clearly an influence on Walpole’s writing with the writer conceding that he had began work on the novel after a  Walpole began work on the novel after a disturbing nightmare at Strawberry Hill.

Other highlights of the tour will include:

Goldfish Tub Chinese: This beautiful blue and white fishbowl holds a rather sinister story as Walpole’s favourite cat Selima, with her ‘velvet paws’ accidentally drowned in this tub, inspiring Thomas Gray’s poem Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat.  

English Armchair: Sir Peter Warburton, a judge, was one of the signatories to the death warrant of Guy Fawkes. The chair looks beautiful until you get closer, in the 1842 catalogue it is described as ‘ornamented with grotesque heads’. 

Hair of Mary Tudor: Walpole kept his most precious treasures inside the Tribune.  A shrine to his mother, the chapel-like room displays the writer’s fascination with classical figures and royal dynasties, especially the Tudors. Indeed, Walpole even kept a lock of Mary Tudor’s unmistakably auburn hair in a locket in the chamber! The hair had been clipped from her corpse when her tomb had been opened in Bury St Edmunds. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Hand of Sabazius: (described as an ‘Egyptian hieroglyphic hand’, the artwork is of Roman, origin and thought to date from between AD 100–299. The disembodied hand was a recurring theme in gothic films, a malevolent force such as in 60s horror classic The Hand, or even The Addams Family’s ‘Thing’. 

Clock and bracket: After the great sale of 1842, Queen Victoria returned this clock to the royal household. Given as a love token from Henry the 8th to Ann Boleyn on their wedding morning, Walpole felt the clock was one of his ‘principal curiosities’, engraved with lovers’ knots. It was a token of intense royal love. However, as we know, the object of Henry’s love, became the object of his hatred. From the lovers’ knot to the unravelling of their relationship, and her eventual execution.  

The gothic genre

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Castle of Otranto

The Gothic horror genre may have begun during a stormy night in 1816 when Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein and her friend John Polidori wrote the earliest vampire novel, the Vamprye, yet, more than 50 years before, Horace Walpole was putting the finishing touches to a book which would be arguably even more influential.

The Castle of Otranto was inspired by  Walpole’s fascination with medieval history and a nightmare he had once had at Strawberry Hill. Walpole gave the novel the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’ and in so doing, created the literary phenomenon. 

The book features many of the essential elements of gothic storytelling with moving portraits, bleeding statues, secret passages, trapdoors and various unexplained noises and goings-on.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The novel begins with the dramatic and somewhat Monty Python-esque death of Conrad, who is killed by an enormous helmet that inexplicably falls on him before his wedding day to Isabella. This fatal episode sets Conrad’s father, Manfred, on his ill-starred journey, as he attempts to stave off the ancient prophecy, “that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”

In a bid to keep Otranto and continue the familial line, Manfred resolves to divorce his wife, Hippolita and marry the young and beautiful Isabella. Of course, his plan does not go well…

Such was the Castle of Otranto’s success that it inspired a slew of stories copying its style, including Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1803) also employed gothic themes for comic effect.

The many lives of Horace Walpole

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Horace Walpole was a pivotal figure in 18th-century society, literature, art, and architecture. The third son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, Horace Walpole was a man of many talents with a large network of influential friends. From 1739-41, Walpole embarked on a Grand Tour and European influences can be seen in the design of Strawberry Hill House and the works that formed its vast collection of treasures. He was author of the world’s first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.

During the 19th and the 20th-centuries the Villa was occupied by Frances, Countess Waldegrave (1821-1879), whose father John Braham was an internationally famous Jewish opera singer; and Herbert Stern, 1st Baron Michelham (1851-1919), who belonged to a European Jewish dynasty of bankers. Both Lady Waldegrave and the Stern family left at Strawberry Hill tangible signs of their presence through their choice of furnishings, decor, and sumptuous collections.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Strawberry Hill and the Gothic Revival 

Built in 1749, Strawberry Hill was one of the first expressions of a revival in a burgeoning taste amongst the wealthy for gothic architecture. The exterior and interior of the house reflect how Walpole was influenced by medieval castles and cathedrals. So much so that, in true gothic style, experts believe that the designs of the chimney-places were based on tombs inside Westminster Abbey.

Horace Walpole thought of his gothic castle as a building with a personality of its own, full of relics (items associated of people from the past to give account of themselves) and the perfectly designed stage for his visitors to experience his treasures and their stories, some of them uncanny some of them macabre. Only by coming to the house can you feel Horace’s theatrics and presence drawing you through the dramatic rooms. “From 1747 Walpole started to acquire pseudo-ancestral objects and curiosities, which gave Strawberry Hill the desired gloomy and historical atmosphere” says Strawberry Hill Curator Silvia Davoli, Curator.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The garden at Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill’s 18th-century garden is one of the earliest in the English naturalistic style. Horace Walpole’s delightful essay on garden design is perhaps the most famous and influential piece of writing on the English landscape garden, first published in 1780 as part of his Anecdotes of Painting in England. In recent years, the House and Garden have been sympathetically restored to recreate Walpole’s unique vision and in the 21st-century his “land of beauties” continues to thrive as a haven for wildlife and visitors throughout the year.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Strawberry Hill House’s Gothic Twilight Tours will take place on the 27th and 28th of October 2021. More information about the events can be found here.

For information on other great activities in London, please click here.

 

-London's Best Events-
What: house tour
When: 27/28 Oct 21
Where: Twickenham