To Strawberry Hill to see the progress of the restoration of Horace Walpole’s riverside summer house. Is any house more famous and so little known? The reverend fathers who took care of it for so long loved it dearly and defended it well, but they had no money to restore its glories. Now some inspired fund-raising, boosted by a handsome Heritage grant, has set the wheels in motion. The results, sticking as faithfully as possible to Walpole’s plans, tell us almost as much about him as reading his irresistible letters.
Riverside, alas, the garden is no more, although the river has not gone away. The 200 yards between Walpole’s raised terrace walk and the Thames have inevitably been filled with houses. Of the 40-odd acres of garden and park, originally in open countryside, some four remain. We know enough about Walpole’s planting to reproduce much of it: young lime trees in serried rows already begin to form the
patte d’oie whose alleys lead to his favourite bay window. One oak survives from Walpole’s time on the terrace walk. More trees serve to screen the college buildings that could easily be uncomfortably close neighbours.
He achieved a truly wonderful deep brilliant guardsman red with a wall-covering of silk mixed with the wool of a particular Cumbrian breed of sheep. The wool is so springy that even in a weave there are no reflecting surfaces. The scarlet in unremitting purity has no highlights to help your eye to focus. Your gaze buries itself in pure colour.
All this red is set off by intricate gilding: a throne-room could hardly be more dazzling – and there are more intimate rooms where gilding traces a sort of Medieval allegro above your head.
There is not yet much furniture, nor very many books in Walpole’s famous library. The greatest want, though, I felt, as we explored, was the voice of the man himself. Perhaps an actor with a suitably camp voice could pronounce Walpole’s commentary as he opened each door to reveal his latest jeu d’esprit.
“Gloomth” was famously one of the effects Walpole aimed to create. He loved to pass from gloomth to brilliance. Where you do, from the grey Gothic corridors to the long gallery upstairs, you blink – just as he intended.