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A Visit to Strawberry Hill

In April 2015, World Monuments Fund led a delegation of representatives from the Palace Museum, China, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on a visit to Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, approximately ten miles down the River Thames from London’s center, to help inform the Palace Museum’s development of a plan for a visitor management system for the Qianlong Garden in the Forbidden City. Strawberry Hill had been included on the 2004 World Monuments Watch, and WMF was involved with a major conservation project at the site, which was successfully completed in recent years.

In 1747, Horace Walpole, a prolific writer, traveler, and collector, purchased a small country villa in Twickenham. Until his death in 1797, Walpole transformed the site into Strawberry Hill, a riverside estate and his own “little gothic castle.” Walpole kept the original structure to retain a sense of the site’s history, but he added onto its architecture over the years. Walpole is considered the founder of Gothic Revival. He was also captivated by innovative materials and often employed trompe l'oeil and papier mâché as building materials. Over the years, Walpole filled the home with his collection of antiques, books, personal writings, and works of art. The site became a tourist attraction almost immediately, yet Walpole did not expect it to last. He wrote, “My building, like my writings, are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead.”

Strawberry Hill was opened to the public in 2010, after a multi-year, £9 million restoration. Currently, the second phase of the restoration is underway.

Members of the group met with Nick Smith, House Director, and Kevin Rogers, architectural historian, to tour the house and discuss a variety of questions related to site management and restoration, including site interpretation, visitor management, fire safety, temperature control, and programming.

Our tour took us on a journey through the house, from the castle-like hallway and staircase in the entrance, through the progression of public spaces such as the parlor room and library, into the private spaces, including Walpole’s writing room. The tour concluded in the Gallery, where the fan-vaulted ceiling covered in papier mâché gilded fretwork spans the crimson display walls and leads to the Tribune room, where Walpole kept his most treasured collection pieces. Each room reveals Walpole’s unique design inspiration, featuring vibrant paint colors, intricate designs, and handspun wallpaper—all based on original materials and replicated through extensive research, modern technology, and fine craftsmanship.

Smith and Rogers explained how the central goal throughout the conservation at Strawberry Hill has been the attempt to the restore the full value of the site in terms of its land, buildings, and objects: how they relate, what still exists from the past, and what exists as an imprint of the past (for example, outlines of original wall fixtures that were uncovered on the walls during the work). All of these aspects feed into a deep understanding of the cultural value of a site. Strawberry Hill offers a full and varied schedule of programming, including tours, family activities, concerts, special exhibitions, volunteer opportunities, and private events.