What’s in a name? The Problem with Strawberry Hill Gothic as a Label, and Braziers, Oxfordshire

Posted by Peter Lindfield on June 21, 2016 in Peter Lindfield tagged with , , , , , , , , , ,
Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ is a label often banded about when discussing eighteenth-century domestic Gothic architecture and design. Frankly, it not an overwhelmingly positive label: the important Victorian architects, designers and writers Charles Locke Eastlake (1833–1906) and A.W.N. Pugin (1812–52) made sure that Strawberry Hill was ingrained in our minds and imagination as a whimsical and, effectively, bad piece of eighteenth-century Gothic. Eastlake, in his monumental study, A History of the Gothic Revival (1872) condemns Walpole and his villa, Strawberry Hill:

The interior, or rather that portion of it which Walpole designed, is just what one might expect from a man who possessed a vague admiration of Gothic without the knowledge necessary for a proper adaption of its features. Ceilings, screens, niches, &c., are all copied, or rather parodied, from existing examples, but with utter disregard for the original purpose of the design. To Lord Orford, Gothic was Gothic, and that sufficed. He would have turned an altar-slab into a hall table, or made a cupboard of a piscina, with the greatest complacency if it only served his purpose. Thus we find that in the North bed-chamber, when he wanted a model for his chimney-piece, he thought he could not do better than adopt the form of Bishop Dudley’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. He found a pattern for the piers of his garden-gate in the choir of Ely Cathedral.

Concluding this damning assessment of Walpole’s adoption and adaption of medieval structures and products to forge his newly-made antiquarian castle of his ancestors, Eastlake suggests that

it is to be feared that his lordship’s enthusiasm not only led him to copy such portions of ancient work, but sometimes to appropriate fragments of an original structure. Unfortunately his example has been imitated by collectors even in our own time.

Strawberry Hill was viewed critically in nineteenth-century Britain beyond Eastlake’s History. In his self-promoting treatise, The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), A.W.N. Pugin derided Strawberry Hill as the paragon of bad Gothic:

 The modern admirers of the pointed style have done much injury to its revival by the erroneous and costly system they have pursued: the interiors of their houses are on mass of elaborate work; there is no repose, no solidarity, no space left for hangings or simple panels: the whole is covered with trifling details, enormously expensive, and at the same time subversive of good effect. These observations apply equally to furniture; — upholsterers seem to think that nothing can be Gothic unless it is found in some church. Hence your modern man designs a sofa or occasional table from details culled out of Briton’s Cathedrals, and all the ordinary articles of furniture, which require to be simple and convenient, are made not only very expensive but very uneasy. We find diminutive flying buttresses about an armchair; everything is crocketed with angular projections, innumerable mitres, sharp ornaments, and turreted extremities. A Man who remains any length of time in a modern Gothic room, and escapes without being wounded by some of its minutiæ, may consider myself extremely fortunate. There are often as many pinnacles and gablets about a pier-glass frame as are to be found in an ordinary church, and not unfrequently the whole canopy of a tomb has been transferred for the purpose, as at Strawberry Hill.

Pretty much consistent through both of these criticisms of Strawberry Hill is the reuse of medieval forms en masse to create a new house and its interiors — from architectural fittings through to furniture. This is, of course, exactly what the High Victorian Gothicists (Pugin et al) did in their own time. But instead of reusing tombs of the Lords Temporal and Spiritual, their Gothic work made use of more mundane and even domestic sources, including tiles, buildings’ carved timbers and metalwork.

‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’, an idea and label enshrined and legitimised by these criticisms, has gained traction and continues to hold weight as a valid term in discourse on art, architectural and design. The term, however, is vague and almost useless: Strawberry Hill was one of many Gothic structures erected in the Georgian period — and it was absolutely not the first complete ‘Gothic Revival’ home — and it is an aberration within this broader Gothic canon. Indeed, the house itself is a contradictory mix of different Georgian Gothics reflecting distinct phases of the villa’s creation and elaboration. The early, highly curvilinear ogee-dominated work of the late 1740s and 1750s is full of gleeful enthusiasm for Decorated forms. Walpole, reflecting upon work from this early phase, remarks that his workmen had not studied the ‘science’ of Gothic. Learning about Gothic as they were creating and extending Strawberry Hill, the house’s character fundamentally changed c.1760 to a soberer, architecturally wrought and filigree style (on the interior):

Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

the Gallery’s papier mâché fan vaulting, the blind tracery applied to the Tribune’s vault and the Round Room’s Neoclassical Gothic chimney-piece and frieze designed by Robert Adam are far more architecturally ambitious and aware of medieval architectural forms than the parlour from the 1750s. Nevertheless, throughout the house the architecture is active — there are twists, turns and unusual angles in the Staircase Hall, small, dark and claustrophobic spaces open into large and light rooms (Trunk Ceiled Passage connects with the Holbein Chamber and the Gallery) and the Tribune is suffused with glorious yellow, Catholic, light.

Gallery, Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Gallery, Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

 

Trunk Ceiled Passage, Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Trunk Ceiled Passage, Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

 

Tribune, Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Tribune, Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

 

Is this active architecture a central characteristic of Strawberry Hill’s Gothic? Yes, but this is not acknowledged sufficiently often. Instead, that paragon of modern knowledge, Wikipedia, characteristically vaguely refers to Strawberry Hill as ‘the type example of the “Strawberry Hill Gothic” style of architecture’. This definition fails to encapsulate the complex, evolutionary and distinct facets of Walpole’s villa. Is there such a thing as Strawberry Hill Gothic? Having written extensively on the villa, I feel that the building is far too complex and compartmentalised stylistically to summarise it under one label: the term discredits Walpole, the building’s history and development.

 

We ought not to use ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ as a label, especially in rigorous academic discourse to refer to any Georgian Gothic output. There are a number of buildings spawned from Strawberry Hill —Walpole referred to one as a ‘child of Strawberry, prettier than its parent’, but they are not examples of ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’. These buildings include Donnington Park, Berkshire, designed by John Chute (who replaced Richard Bentley as Strawberry’s chef-de-Gothic) for James Pettit Andrews in 1763. The house, architecturally, has almost nothing in common with the form, appearance and decoration of Strawberry Hill.

 

John Chute, Design for Donnington Grove, Berkshire, 49 3490 Folio. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, CT

John Chute, Design for Donnington Grove, Berkshire, 49 3490 Folio. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, CT

 

Another house, Lee Priory, Kent, realised and fitted out by James Wyatt between 1780 and 1790 (destroyed 1950s) also did not recreate Strawberry Hill’s Gothic elevations — even though this is the building Walpole felt was a ‘child of Strawberry’. The only notable connection is the selection of turned ebony furniture — the ‘true black blood’ — for the house’s Strawberry Closet and Library: Walpole felt that this type of furniture was Tudor (and, hence, medieval) and sufficiently appropriate for medievalising interiors.

Dixon, Lee Priory, Kent, 1785, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.1.8

Dixon, Lee Priory, Kent, 1785, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.1.8

 

Strawberry Closet from Lee Priory, c.1785–90. W.48:1 to 3-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Strawberry Closet from Lee Priory, c.1785–90. W.48:1 to 3-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Turned ebony chair, 'the true black blood'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Turned ebony chair, ‘the true black blood’. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Even the Strawberry Closet, named in hour of Thomas Barrett’s friend, Walpole, and his house, fails to recreate any one room in Strawberry Hill. The Closet has a fan vault, but this is hardly unique to Strawberry Hill in Georgian Gothic houses.

Another house that has only recently come to my attention, and which has escaped, to my knowledge, every modern work on the Gothic Revival, is Braziers, Oxfordshire.

Braziers Park, Oxford. © Peter N. Lindfield

Braziers, Oxford. © Peter N. Lindfield

 

Braziers Park, Oxford. © Peter N. Lindfield

Braziers, Oxford. © Peter N. Lindfield

The house, at its core a late seventeenth-century structure, was remodeled as a Gothic pile by Daniel Harris (c.1761–1840), architect and builder in Oxford, and Keeper of the County Gaol in the city, for J.G. Manly. His designs for the structure were exhibited at the Academy in 1799: two years after Walpole’s death. Currently the building is described as a piece of ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’. This is actually unfair to Braziers, Harris, Strawberry Hill and Walpole. Braziers’ structure, as we can see, has a symmetric entrance façade with a pared-back Gothic veranda, porch and embattled tower. These elements (save the crenellations) and symmetry do not respond in any way to Strawberry Hill’s architecture. The house’s simple two-centred lancet windows with Y-tracery are similarly unrepresentative of the fenestration at Walpole’s villa. Braziers is, instead, a remarkably somber house and lacks the architecturally-emotive vision of Walpoel et al embodied in Strawberry Hill’s active architecture. Harris’ project, nevertheless, is a particularly important survival of later-Georgian Gothic that speaks of the importance of architectural form. Considering it to be a child of Strawberry is, consequently, representative the complex and misunderstood subtleties of Georgian Gothic design. It equally should not be identified with the flawed and imprecise label ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’. Working and living in very Gothic Oxford — rather than Strawberry Hill located 50-odd miles away — was clearly more influential upon this structure than Walpole’s villa.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/zzvj4gp