Laura Ford at Strawberry Hill
Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham
Until 1 November 2015
It was in his bed at Strawberry Hill House that Horace Walpole (literally) dreamed up what is often considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.
Published in 1764 and inspired by a nightmare about a huge iron fist grasping the balustrade on his staircase, the novel is set in the medieval Italian court of Prince Manfred, and starts on the day his only son Conrad is to marry Isabella, the daughter of a marquis. Yet a curse on the family means that a vast helmet descends from the sky to crush Conrad to death. Manfred therefore determines to wed Isabella himself and she rushes off to find sanctuary.
Even before the end of the first chapter, therefore, we get a scene that could come straight from a horror film – a genre that can trace its ancestry partly back to Walpole’s novel. Isabella seeks the passage that “led from the vaults of the castle to the church of saint Nicholas”, yet “an awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which grating on the rusty hinges were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness. Every murmur struck her with new terror…”
Many other stock Gothic props are also in evidence: a bleeding statue; caves “which had formerly served as a retreat to hermits, and were now reported round the country to be haunted by evil spirits”; and a mysterious figure who turns round to reveal “the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl”.
The “Gothic” sensibility Walpole brought to The Castle of Otranto – according to Nick Groom, professor of English literature at the University of Exeter, in his introduction to the 2014 Oxford World’s Classics edition – is forged from themes and motifs including “the revenants of a Catholic medieval past”; “the crumbling abbeys and monasteries” left behind by Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation; “the poetics of melancholy”; and a fascination with “barbarity, savagery, freedom, chivalry”.
Yet Walpole was also inspired, of course, by the extraordinary Gothic villa he had been building at Strawberry Hill since 1749. Isabella manages to escape Manfred’s clutches because of another strange supernatural intervention: the portrait of his grandfather “uttered a deep sigh” before going on to “quit its pannel [sic], and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air” and signalling to Manfred to follow him. Writing to a friend about this scene, Walpole specifically asked: “When you read of the picture quitting its panel, did you not recollect the portrait of Lord Falkland [by Paul van Somer] all in white in my gallery?”
After Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill House was inherited by a cousin – a pioneering female sculptor called Anne Seymour Damer – and then passed to the Waldegrave family, illegitimate descendants of Horace’s brother Edward. During the Waldegrave era, the dazzling white villa acquired a stone-coloured extension in a rather different Victorian Gothic style. In 1923, the whole ensemble and its grounds were purchased by what has since become St Mary’s University, Twickenham.
This has its origins in 1850 as a Catholic teacher-training college, so with strange appropriateness Walpole’s folly, according to a spokesperson, “provided the living accommodation for the Vincentian priests who at that time made up a considerable proportion of the staff. The order moved out in 1990, and between then and 2007 the house was used for additional office accommodation, social events and as a venue for conferences.”
Eight years ago, Strawberry Hill House was leased out to a trust for restoration. It opened to the public in 2010. This means that the villa is now just a neighbour to the university, although sometimes used for joint events – and it is obviously helpful for the students on the MA in Gothic: Culture, Subculture, Counterculture to have access to the building and its archive. Meanwhile, film and photography students from Kingston University use it for creative projects. Tourism students from the University of Roehampton explore ways of attracting more visitors aged 14 to 19, as required by the Heritage Lottery Fund. And Silvia Davoli, Paul Mellon Centre research curator at Strawberry Hill, researches the present whereabouts of the thousands of artefacts collected by Walpole that were sold off in 1842.
Today, therefore, Strawberry Hill House is largely empty, a labyrinthine sequence of rooms painted or wallpapered in the original bold colours, with Flemish stained glass and unusual details such as little caged unicorns at each turn of the main staircase. It is very much “fighting against the rigidity of Neo-Classical symmetry”, says curator Stephen Feeke (director of the New Art Centre at Roche Court), and he thought it would be interesting to stage an “intervention” by a suitable contemporary artist. Laura Ford, who specialises in creepily comic animals and girls, usually made of bronze, ceramic and fabric, seemed ideal. Although she sometimes alludes to Renaissance art, Victorian costume and children’s books, she also draws on her unusual background growing up in a travelling fairground and a family farm that at one time had been a zoo.
Many of her existing works have found a perfect new home at Strawberry Hill. Little Mouse (2013), dressed and posed a bit like an obsequious lift boy, lurks in the corner of a creepy corridor illuminated only by a yellow skylight. Walpole’s library features a ceiling painted with the family crest and portraits of ancestors who fought in the Crusades. Ford has turned it into a battle scene, with five bronze Armour Boys (2006) scattered on the floor.
A sinister white figure known as Glory Glory (2005), holding a white teddy bear and dressed in a mask, army hat, life jacket and cricket pads, occupies an empty niche in Walpole’s armoury, perhaps echoing the celebrated white painting he mentioned in his letter. The bedroom where Otranto was dreamed up and the adjacent closet are now occupied by two elephants in pyjamas known as Bedtime Boys (2012). One visitor has already suggested that these evoke the real “elephant in the room” about Walpole’s life – whether he was a closet gay.
Most striking of all, a clowder of huge black cats – newly cast in bronze after a work Ford originally created in fabric – seems to have colonised the lawn outside the house. Although their poses are loosely based on a painting by Masaccio, Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise (c.1427), they could just as easily be a group of angsty existentialist poets or cartoonishly inept detectives scouring the ground for clues.
Each of these pieces has been chosen by Feeke and Ford for their appropriateness to their new setting. Yet the sculptor has also created a number of site-specific works. Kangaroo (2014), made largely of sacking, seems to be packing away in her pouch the treasures Walpole kept in his gold-ribbed Tribune room. The family once owned a celebrated painting by Joshua Reynolds of The Ladies Waldegrave (1780), clearly designed to advertise the charms of the three accomplished and beautiful sisters and to combat the stigma of illegitimacy. Ford has responded by producing three identically coiffed bronze Waldegrave Poodles (2015) sitting in front of a grand fireplace. Many Gothic clichés have become so well-worn since Walpole’s day that it is hard to imagine a contemporary artist taking them seriously. Yet this bold exhibition shows us the evocative results that can still be achieved by arguing and playing with them.