Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill: stairway to a thousand horrors

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill: stairway to a thousand horrors

Horace Walpole’s extraordinary Strawberry Hill villa inspired him to write stories that have influenced everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to JK Rowling. A new show brings it vividly to life.

By Martin Gayford

In June 1764 a 52-year-old man awoke from a strange dream. He was sleeping in his own house, recently radically rebuilt, in Twickenham by the Thames. In his sleep he had thought himself, he later wrote to a friend, in “an ancient castle”. There, “on the uppermost banister of a great staircase”, he had seen “a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate”.

The resultant book changed literary history – we are still reading its remote fictional successors today – and the house in which it was dreamt, which was just as much the creation of that middle-aged dreamer, profoundly altered the future course of architecture. The man was Horace Walpole and the building was his villa, Strawberry Hill. Both are the subject of an exhibition at the V&A (Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill).

It will put back in the spotlight an extremely unusual man. Horace Walpole (1717-97) was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister for much of the early Georgian period, and one of the great power brokers and wheeler-dealers in British political history. Horace – superficially at least – could scarcely have been more different.

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