How radical was the challenge posed by Walpole’s experiments at Strawberry Hill to the classical tradition?
The growth of the informal tradition in architecture could be said to have begun with the revolution in garden design undertaken by Charles Bridgeman and later taken up by William Kent, with his notionally informal landscapes. This movement towards the picturesque setting of country houses extended to the construction of follies around the landscape, to enhance the vistas, and create a more ‘painterly’ landscape. These were inspired by rural temples present in Italian landscape paintings, such as those by Claude. Another element with this architectural adornment of landscape was to create sham ruins, possibly as a sort of memento mori, and to add to the picturesque quality of a designed landscape.
An increased interest in the Gothic began to happen as it was associated with Britain’s historic past, and it was thought that is was devoid of 'unpatriotic' European influences, and that there were many authentic Gothic ruins around Britain’s landscape. The Gothic craze during this period had almost no academic rigour behind it, it was fanciful and far-fetched. It can be compared to the Chinoiserie, where a ‘foreign’ style is applied to furniture and buildings with almost no concession to reality. Batty Langley’s Gothic Architecture improved by Rules and Proportions was brought out in 1742, which fostered an interest in the Gothic. Langley approached the Gothic from a Vitruvian direction, he thought that as Classical architecture followed a definite set of rules, then Gothic must do the same, and he proposed to define these rules. He tried to reduce Gothic to resemble one of the classical orders, and produced many designs for ornamental Gothic buildings, such as summerhouses and pavilions. Langley’s approach was presuming that Gothic was inferior to the Classical style, by attempting to make it conform to Classical rules and proportions.
Walpole acquired Strawberry Hill in 1747, and intended to build himself a Gothic house, and from the beginning of the project, fully intended that it would be asymmetrical1. He did not begin serious work on it until 1750 when he intended to extend and Gothicise the small house which was already on the site. When he began the alterations, he presumably took as his starting point the level that the 18th century Gothic revival had reached, and the house was designed accordingly. John Chute, a friend of Walpole, created the first designs for the Gothic house. These first alterations resulted in a roughly symmetrical arrangement, with a central bay feature. ‘Gothic’ features applied were battlements, crocketed spires, ogee arched and quatrefoil windows. The internal decoration was designed by another friend of Walpole, Richard Bentley. These first internal Gothic elements were more limited than the second phase, they only included the chimney-pieces, the windows and the doors. Although Bentley’s first decorative schemes were based on historical precedents, such as the main staircase was taken from the staircase to the library at Rouen Cathedral, he took the designs from pattern-books on the Gothic and engravings of cathedrals, which were just beginning to be circulated. As such, the scale and placement was not completely accurate. This was not a serious experiment in Gothic architecture, it was the easy use of gothic motifs on a fairly classically standard building layout. This first arrangement could be considered where the Gothic revival had reached. The nearest sources to this could be the designs in Batty Langley’s book, and the nearby house of Esher Place where William Kent had added Gothic wings to an older building2. Strawberry Hill can be seen to be bridging the gap between the Rococo Gothic style of Batty Langley, and the fully-fledged academic Gothic.
After the completion of the first phase in 1753, Walpole realised that the prints and pattern-books he had been using were not as authentic as he wanted, and he had a great deal to learn about the Gothic style. He and John Chute made trips to see Gothic monuments and were taken aback by how different they seemed in reality. He formed his ‘Committee of Taste’, gathering around him Gothic enthusiasts and antiquaries in order to discuss how best to continue the work at Strawberry Hill. The Committee of Taste consisted of Richard Bentley, John Chute, Thomas Pitt, Thomas Gray and James Essex. Richard Bentley and John Chute were the main architects of the house, James Essex contributed to a lesser extent. Thomas Pitt and Thomas Gray were antiquarians working in an advisory role. Chute and Walpole were more interested in the archaeological aspects of re-creating ancient work at Strawberry Hill, but Bentley was later criticised for ‘employing Gothic because its name licensed any extravagant invention’3. The influence of the Committee of Taste resulted in a more scholarly revivalism for the second phase of Strawberry Hill, begun in 1758. The result of the influence of the Committee of Taste was that the Gothic sources used were more genuine than in the first phase, they still had no concept of using a Gothic form for its intended purpose. Scale and function were altered in many uses.
‘The Committee on Taste had little conception of structural significance in what they copied and they did not bother with the intentions of the original builders. They saw no impropriety in boiling down a west front to do service for a bookcase, in converting a tomb to a chimney piece, or in substituting lath and plaster for stone.’4
This method of combining many sources in one amalgam is shown by the chimneypiece in the Holbein Chamber, which Grey thought was a copy of the high altar at Rouen, whereas Walpole recorded that it was taken chiefly from the tomb of Archbishop Wareham at Canterbury5. They did not grasp the later concept of materials being essential to the Gothic, the Gothic employed by the Committee, although partially historically accurate, was copyist, and still filled with Rococo Gothic elements such as the ceiling of the Tribune. Perhaps the nearest one rooms decoration comes to being almost authentic was the Gallery. The room was inspired by Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster, and perhaps best shows the flamboyant Gothic that was employed at Strawberry Hill. Walpole did recognise that he wasn’t being completely accurate in his Gothicism, he excuses himself with the notion that he wanted modern convenience and luxury, he didn’t want every aspect of his house to be Gothic. Grey supported this course:
‘…for it is mere pedantry of Gothicism to stick to nothing but altars and tombs, and there is no end to it, if we are to sit upon nothing but Coronation chairs’6.
The second phase had the main result of throwing the building completely off symmetry, by the addition of a large wing to the north of the original structure. This asymmetry could be the main contribution of Strawberry Hill to the 18th century Gothic revival, as many previous buildings, although they may have Gothic detailing, were overtly symmetrical, such as Esher Place. Walpole professed a fondness to the idea of asymmetry in a letter to Horace Mann back in 1750. ‘I am as fond of the Sharawaggi, or Chinese lack of symmetry, in buildings as in grounds or gardens’7. This asymmetry eventually culminated in a dominant round tower at the end of the new wing. This round tower probably most resembles a castle keep, and was designed by James Essex. It was one of last additions to the main part of the house, and seems to reinforce the imbalance, making the east end far higher than the west. The tower was connected to the older section of the building by a five-bay tribune with a long gallery above it. The tower and tribune continued the crenulations around the top of the building, but provided a changing roofline level. This section was in a more authentic style than the older part, even including some rudimentary buttressing. The south front presented an almost uniform line, with variance provided by the round tower at one end, and a large bay window at the other. The north front was much more varied, the exterior followed where the rooms were positioned, there was no concession to a façade. The shape of the exterior mirrored what was on the interior.
Walpole filled Strawberry Hill with his vast collections of antiques, books and art, and as it was such a controversial and novel building, large numbers of people came to visit it. The plan was also designed in the expectation of visitors, the private apartments could be closed off, allowing no inconveniencing of Walpole or his guests. Visitors entered at the north door, went up the stairs into the armoury and library, then into the Holbein Chamber, then through the Gallery and to the Tribune. There was another staircase at the west end of the house, perhaps this is where the visitors left the building. The decorative scheme was also planned around this route, the rooms gradually get more and more intense, culminating in the tribune with its stained glass and heavy plasterwork. The large numbers of visitors must have spread the reputation of Strawberry Hill, and by association, the Gothic style must have become more popular. It could be said that Walpole managed to popularise the Gothic, before him it was limited to a few eccentrics, but once someone as cultured as Walpole took it up, society decided that there was something in it, and a mass of country gentlemen took up the style8. Walpole’s best contribution was to involve historic models in the Gothic style, making it more authentic than previous attempts. Although it can be dismissed as a work in Rococo Gothic, there are serious elements that do mount a challenge to the Classical tradition that was prevalent. The main difference was, in Walpole’s final building, no concession to symmetry or a uniform façade. These two points were arguably the main rules of Classical building, the façade overrules the internal layout. The challenge to this can perhaps be best seen on the north front, where the external wall swings in and out in response to the layout of rooms behind it. The architectural vocabulary used could also be a challenge, up to Strawberry Hill, the Gothic style was seen as something light-hearted and frivolous, suitable for landscape embellishments and pastiches. It was the beginning, the first step where serious scholarship influenced the Gothic, as it had done to the Classical. It would be up to later architects to finish the transformation into a serious style, but Strawberry Hill had started a revival.
‘Strawberry was an assemblage of historical examples of Gothic art fitted into a Georgian frame’9.