This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
[ See Frontispiece. ]
One of the most celebrated men of the last century, as every one familiar with English literature knows, was Horace Walpole. His literary talent, his love of art, his antiquarian taste, and his social position, all combined to make him one of the celebrities of his age. All reviewers admit that his letters convey the best interior picture of his time, that we possess, and they have a charm of style, and a flow of anecdote and wit, that have made them the most popular books of their kind for nearly a century.
When Walpole was in his prime, he retired to Twickenham, on the Thames, one of the suburbs of London. Here he purchased a property, and amused himself for twenty years in building a villa, which he called Strawberry Hill, and collecting a museum of antiquarian relics, and curiosities of all kinds. In this residence and its contents he spent vast sums of money, and exhausted all his taste and ingenuity in producing something unique and admirable. Having already ransacked Italy as a virtuosa, before commencing his building he made a tour through various parts of the kingdom, and collected models of the principal cathedrals and fine old gothic buildings. England had been saturated for two generations previous to his time, with so-called classical architecture, and Walpole, with his antiquarian taste, set about a revival of the taste for the ancient style.
The result in Strawberry Hill, is both amusing and instructive. It is amusing, since the house was at last only a caricature of gothic style - a kind of bastard imitation, or rather jumble of various eras of gothic architecture, without unity, harmony, or correctness of detail or proportion. Square headed labels are hung over pointed windows, pinnacles spring out of embattled parapets - and every species of absurdity of which the style is capable, seem to be assembled to keep each other company.
Strawberry Hill is instructive, because it shows very clearly that a man may have a great deal of knowledge, and abundant taste of a certain kind, and yet make an utter failure in attempting to become his own architect. If a man wishes to build a plain bouse - which shall express only a comfortable and convenient family residence, he may succeed well enough without any professional aid. But it is easier to compose a fine piece of music without having studied harmony and thorough basso, than it is to compose a large building, in a complicated style of architecture, without knowing a great deal more of the art than what is comprised in a mere love of the subject, and a smattering of knowledge of the details and plans of other buildings.
Strawberry Hill has been looked upon with favor by some critics, not as possessing intrinsic beauty, but as having drawn attention to the merits of the Gothic style, which had long been neglected in England. A writer in the London Quarterly, claims even more for Walpole. "He will probably be for ages remembered as the creator of a new style of architecture. Great discoveries are sometimes made from small circumstances, and the repairs and additions made to box at the corner of two
Another English writer gives the following description of Strawberry Hill, which accords entirely with our own impressions:
"A place more intrinsically paltry does not exist: dirty, dingy walls, rough coated with mortar and pebbles, and surmounted by wooden battlements, of which the founder himself outlasted three generations; bounded on two sides by the high road, with all its dust, noise and publicity; the rooms low, dark, and with the exception of the long gallery, devoid of proportion; the grounds limited to a very small space, and that limitation rendered still more conspicuous from the attempt to crowd into it temples, grottoes, and statuary; the only merit of Strawberry Hill is one with which Horace Walpole had nothing to do, namely - the view of the river commanded by this piece of architectural gim-crackery.
"Walpole seemed altogether to forget, in what he chose to consider his restoration of the pure gothic, that the essential character of that style is grandeur and sublimity; and that without space and magnitude, all examples of castellated gothic, must be contemptible. The classic styles admit of being applied to buildings, either great or small; and seem to equal advantage in the Temple of Minerva or the Lanthorn of Demosthenes. But to the gothic, [where one goes beyond a mere cottage,] breadth and altitude are essential; and the attempt to illustrate its character and beauties in lath and plaster, at Strawberry Hill, has produced only a very ugly, fragile, and incommodious structure, destitute either of beauty or sublimity."
We have held up Strawberry Hill to public notice, because we have seen one or two instances of this kind of virtuoso amateur compilation on this side of the Atlantic. We could name one example, at least, where over one hundred thousand dollars have been spent in a private residence, in a miserable battlemented gothic style, most solidly and well built of brown sandstone - but hardly less tolerable in point of design, than Strawberry Hill. The owner was his own architect, disdaining all professional assistance, and with the aid of a few books on gothic architecture, and a good builder, has hashed up a building that he will most likely live to be ashamed of, as his friends now are, when he might have set a noble example of pure taste to aid the architectural genius of a young people.