Strawberry Hill House in the west of London is all wrong. The past was not like this. The castle walls are all sheer white and bright against the perfect green lawns, not some craggy forbidding grey. Internal walls have printed pointed arch wallpaper not deeply cut panels of ancient oak. Decorative schemes are downloaded straight from church tombs, ceilings or screens (with each attribution happily announced by a passing guide), not the distinctive honest work of some cheerful local craftsman. Rather than practical functionality being the guide, entire rooms were for display only, including the main bedroom that was never to be used. All impression and no substance: closer to a theatre set than a house; a toy or plaything not a serious artifice that would last.
However, Strawberry Hill did last and is perhaps the historic house of the 21st century. It was started by Horace Walpole, an influential literary and social figure, in the mid 18th century, and he continued to play with it until his death late in the century. Resurrected, renovated or perhaps comprehensively reconstructed in the recent years, it is intentionally paper-thin, not only in the paper-mache fan vaulting of the main galley (see image), the wall-papers, and the often simple substitution of ‘the gothic’ for classical details, when equally Rococo, Chinese or a range of other alternatives may have done. Personal eccentricity mattered more than conforming to any rigid community standard. Adding to the effect was the clutter of paintings and curiosities that would have filled the rooms (now notably sparse), creating atmosphere, moods, and sentiment. All tailored to the room, its particular light, and the carefully orchestrated progression through the spaces.
Of course, the serious Victorians would have none of this. When they turned their attention to creating the past (that is English, not some foreign classical import) in the following century, they dealt with it seriously, soliciting true solid feelings, not passing whims or sensations. Houses would have a solidity and sense of permanence, with materials used truthfully, showing their inner nature and the structure of the place honestly revealed. Their Gothic, the ‘true’ one was contrasted with that of the previous century, which now had a belittling ‘k’ added to it.
However, we have a moved a long way from the Victorians; Horace and his house may be more in tune with today. We seek houses with the ability to endlessly rearrange, as we follow the fashion roller-coaster or simply more passing personal whims. We seem increasingly willing to accept skin-deep materials that are often little more than photographic surfaces on some composite material that no one understands. We are driven by conflicting effects, moods or associations some of which may be so short term and specific that redesign is constant. There seems to be no single dependable source for a design element, associations are complex and composite; many fragments from many parts and times of the world. There is no sense that it is even possible to have an eternal form.