While flipping through the London Attractions: 2 for 1 pamphlet in July I noticed a house that I had never seen or heard of before. It was called Strawberry Hill House and the blurb boasted that it was England’s finest example of Georgian Gothic Revival Architecture.
I quickly began asking friends if they had heard of this house. No one had so I decided I must visit. The website introduces the prospective visitor to Horace Walpole, the man who created the house in the 18th century. Currently the Strawberry Hill Trust, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has recently undertaken a £9 million repair and restoration of Walpole’s villa.
Walpole called his castle a ‘plaything house’ and in choosing the gothic style for Strawberry Hill he deliberately avoided the fashionable classical idioms of his time: columns, pediments, order and symmetry. While there were no columns I found a lot of symmetry in the beautiful detail throughout the house. As seen in the Gold room below.
In collaboration with a group of amateur architect friends he based his designs on the architecture of the great gothic cathedrals and abbeys. Medieval tombs, arched doorways, rose windows and carved screens were models for his fireplaces, windows, doors and ceilings. Books of prints rather than the buildings themselves were his reference point and, instead of carved stone, the rooms and ornament of Strawberry Hill are wood, plaster and papier mache.
The interesting thing about this ‘castle’ is that all the furniture and art was sold at auction years ago so it is practically empty. I knew this before going and I wondered if it would feel too sparse. I found that I actually preferred it that way. When viewing old castles and stately homes (like Versailles) I often find it is a bit overkill. Without the furniture one could really notice the details.
Let me now introduce you to the second man.
Sir Henry Pellatt was born to British parents in Kingston, Ontario on January 6, 1859. He founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883. By the time he was 30, the Toronto Electric Light Company enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of street lighting to the city of Toronto.
In 1911, armed with a fortune of $17 million, Sir Pellatt drew up plans with Canadian architect E.J. Lennox to build his dream castle. The land on which he planned to build had been given the name Casa Loma by its previous owner.
Seeing any similarities here? Well David and I didn’t at first but when we were in Casa Loma a poster discussed the connection to Strawberry Hill House. Houses of this type and scale are not and were not common for Canada and Casa Loma came under some harsh criticism at the time it was being built.
Some of the defence was to look at other houses, in similar style in Europe and SHH was one such comparison. As it is built in a Gothic revival style as well I see those similarities on the outside but that is where it ends.
Casa Loma took three years and $3.5 million to build. Sir Henry Pellatt filled Casa Loma with artwork from Canada and around the world. Casa Loma stood as a monument to its creator – it surpassed any private home in North America. With soaring battlements and secret passageways, it paid homage to the castles and knights of days gone by.
While I enjoyed the sparseness in Strawberry Hill House I liked seeing this house and all the furniture in tact. Houses or ‘castles’ of this nature just do not exist in Canada as they do in abundance in Europe. It was also said that Sir Pellatt has hoped he would one day entertain royally from England but that never happened.
Unfortunately, Sir Henry Pellatt’s fortunes could not sustain the magic that was Casa Loma. Sir Henry Pellatt enjoyed Casa Loma for less than ten years before financial misfortune forced him to abandon his home.
Strawberry Hill House is a great day out costing only £8 (£4 if you can do 2 for 1 with your rail tickets) so if you are in London and looking for something that is not packed with tourists and not as well known then give this a try.
Likewise if you are in Toronto then I recommend seeing Casa Loma. If you can handle it (it is a bit claustrophobic) then go to the very top to be rewarded with a stunning view of the city.