Laura Ford, Glory, Glory, 2005. Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.
The Gothic Revival reached its apogee in the public architecture of the Victorians: parliaments that resemble railway stations, and stations that resemble churches. These were tutelary buildings, cornerstones of morality as well as infrastructure: the pointed arch, Augustus Pugin declared in 1836, had been "produced by the Catholic faith." Nevertheless, it was the catholic taste of Horace Walpole, the self-styled "Abbot of Twickenham," that created the "little gothic castle" of Strawberry Hill, Britain's first comprehensive revival of the pointed arch and its medieval company.
The youngest son of the prime minister who invented the "cabinet" system, Walpole was the best kind of dilettante, an amateur who outdid the professionals. A pioneering historian of British art, he was also a playwright, the author of the first Gothic novel, the founder of Britain's first private printing press, and a peerless gossip who wrote over 4,000 witty letters. Strawberry Hill, part-artist's colony by the Thames, part-stage set for a Gothic melodrama, is his masterpiece.
Walpole bought the estate in 1749. Aided by a coterie of medievally-minded friends and a library of prints of medieval church architecture, he gothicized his house by degrees, adding battlements and arches of wood, finials of papier-maché, and acres of trompel'oeil fretwork. "Well, I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence," he wrote in 1761, after adding an entire wing, with a turreted tower, and a cabinet of curiosities, including Cardinal Wolsey's hat; Walpole was outbid for Cromwell's nightcap. Further expansions of magnificence ensued, and Walpole's private fantasy became a public spectacle. He issued tickets to visitors, and complained when they mishandled his curios.
Yet, just as the Gothic Revival reach its Victorian peak, Walpole's hoard was sold off. Walpole, dying childless in 1797, bequeathed the house to his niece, the animal sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, and her heirs. In 1842, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave, having brawled with the police after returning drunk from the races, avenged himself on the local judiciary by auctioning the contents. His wife, Lady Frances, made further additions, all harmonizing with Walpole's disordered theme, and turned the house into a salon for Gladstone and his Liberal friends. But her heirs could not afford its upkeep. In 1923, the Catholic Education Council bought Strawberry Hill as a training college, with further expansions by Sebastian Pugin Powell, a grandnephew of Augustus Pugin. By 1960, dry rot and German bombs had damaged the only building to represent the beginning, middle, and end of Britain's Gothic Revival.
Gothic fiction abounding in uncanny encounters and implausible resurrections, Strawberry Hill has come back from the dead. Its restoration, begun in 2002 by a small group of local aficionados, has now entered its second phase. The tower and its wing have been completely rebuilt. Twenty rooms have been restored, and the gardens are being returned to their original state. A program of activities has been launched; its Walpole-style activities include a Gothic book club, and a dining club. Some of Walpole's possessions have returned under loan; in 2017, an exhibition will gather more of them. And, this summer, Strawberry Hill has again become a living museum, a site for new art.
Strawberry Hill's first contemporary exhibition is by the sculptor Laura Ford. Her anthropomorphic animals and faceless children are perfect for Strawberry Hill. Apart from echoing Anne Damer's animal sculptures, Ford evokes the undertow of emotional disturbance that churns beneath the camp, glittery waves of Walpole's surfaces. With the curator, Stephen Feeke, she has arranged a series of strange meetings, just as in Walpole's original conception.
Walpole coined the term that describes the effect of a visit to his asymmetrical fantasy: "serendipity," the glory of a chance meeting. Ford's meetings have the quality that Freud called unheimlich, unfamiliar and indeterminately nightmarish. On the lawn, seven man-sized cats pace in metaphysical agony: the bronzes of Ford's "Days of Judgment" (2012), their postures derived from Masaccio's "Adam and Eve Banished From Paradise" (c.1477), in the Church of S. Maria del Carmine, Florence. In the Prior's Garden, a mock-monastic walk, two "Weeping Girls" (2009), hide their faces with thick cords of hair, like disgraced Alices in Wonderland.
Inside, as Walpole planned, the visitor proceeds from darkness to light, from the deliberate "gloomth" of the narrow entry hall, lit by a single candle in a massive iron lamp, to the long gallery upstairs, with its views toward the Thames, shining parquet, recessed gilt-edged portraits, and dripping white finials. Ford's characters lurk in the corners like bad memories.
In the entry hall that inspired the opening of Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Ford's painfully earnest "Sorrow Filled Cat" (2014), pines in a Victorian bonnet and hat. In the parlor, Walpole's three nieces, painted by Reynolds as "The Ladies Waldegrave" (1780), become three plaster poodles. In the recess over the stairwell, "Glory, Glory" (2005) is a composite Victorian hero, frozen in white cricket gloves and pads, a white life jacket, and a white mask, clutching a child's polar bear doll: a juvenile dream of the Scott Expedition's Arctic end.
Upstairs, miniature suits of armor are splayed across the library floor like child victims, and an exhausted donkey lays his head, dunce-like on a stack of dictionaries. Pairs of girls haunt the bedrooms, their gazes averted or crudely stitched. The hair of the "Medieval Cloud Girls" (2015) flames against red damask walls, and their feet are trapped in a puddle of lava. The words "Love" and "Hate" are tattooed on their knuckles, and one girl clutches a stone; Ford was inspired by the raining hellfire in a medieval wood relief from Dijon, and also by the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, whose violence is narrated from a young girl's perspective.
The castle becomes a prison. The "Chattering Girls" (2015) are two-faced dolls, one sitting on a facsimile of the bed in which Walpole's father died, the other looking out of the window. In the purple Holbein Room, roots sprout from the shoes of the "Dancing Clog Girls" (2013). In the attic, a pair of elephant-headed eight year-old boys prepare for bed in flannel pajamas and plaid dressing gowns, like Victorian boarders in an unheated dormitory.
Unlike W.C. Fields or Horace Walpole, Laura Ford always works with children and animals. Both are objects of emotional projection and of adult violence, yet their interior lives remain obscure. Ford's sculptures enchant in the way of Alice in Wonderland or "Peter Pan," and disturb in the way of the Reverend Dodgson's photographs of Alice Liddell, or J.M. Barrie's pederastic cultivation of the Llewellyn Davies boys. The Victorians revived Gothic architecture as public morality; Ford's Victorian trappings, like the opening of a coffin in a Gothic novel, expose the private complement, a stink of corruption. The Gothic, like its sunlit double, the compensatory Victorian daydream, feeds on murky sexuality, traumatic memories, and repressed violence. Walpole, whose friends included the necrophiliac George Selwyn, and whose plays included the incest comedy The Mysterious Mother, would have appreciated Ford's airing of the family skeletons.
Laura Ford at Strawberry Hill opened at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, London TW2 on June 20th, 2015, and can be seen there until November 1st, 2015. From March 19th–September 4th 2016, the exhibition will travel to the Blackwell Arts & Crafts House, Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria.