I had the great good fortune of visiting St Mary’s University in Twickenham on a sunny day, which allowed me to take a walk through its lovely campus and visit its next-door neighbour Strawberry Hill House: indeed, there is a door leading from the wing of one to the old building of the other.
It was the summer house built to house the art collection of the extravagant and eccentric Horace Walpole, politician, art historian and writer. He was not all that rich when he acquired a plot of land with a cottage and a nice view over the River Thames in Twickenham, but he had very strong ideas about what he wanted to create: an architectural folly to entertain guests who would come upstream to visit him, a backdrop for his legendary literary and artistic parties.
He had a passion for the Gothic style and pioneered its revival a good half century or more before the Victorian revival of it. He even pioneered it in literature, starting a new genre: the Gothic horror with The Castle of Otranto. As he got richer, he kept adding another wing or redecorating the house, and of course he spent a fortune on his collections. Not just objects of artistic value but also of historical importance – for example, the clock that Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn on their wedding day or Cardinal Wolsey’s scarlet cardinal hat. Before visiting, I had the impression that Walpole made it up as he went along and created a mish-mash of styles without much thought and planning. But I discovered just how meticulous a historian he was and how accurate all his reproductions were (of wallpaper and silk hangings for example).
And it was not all about extravagance. He was also astute at spotting a bargain – for instance, most of the stained glass in the windows was reclaimed from Flemish salvage yards. Unlike most private collectors, he was not about keeping it all for himself, but saw Strawberry Hill as a cultural centre to be shared with others. He started a printing press, and exhibited most of his possessions like a museum.
He had a wonderful life surrounded by all his favourite objects, showing them off to visitors, living exactly as he pleased. But the sad coda to this tale is that when he died without an heir, his entire collection was auctioned off. Fortunately, for a short time only, much of it has been brought together again (on loan or reproduced) and until the 24th of February you can see Strawberry Hill as its owner wanted it to be seen in the Lost Treasures exhibition.
The view over the Thames has been lost, sadly, and the gardens border onto St Mary’s athletic track, but what other garden has got a shell-shaped seat with a whole book dedicated to it?
I’ve presented quite a few homes of writers and artists in France, but what about some homes for English-language writers in the US and UK? I don’t want to neglect Africa, Australia or New Zealand, so if you know of any noteworthy houses there, be sure to let me know in the comments section.
Finally, in this one you can actually stay overnight courtesy of AirBnB.
Some of them belong(ed) to writers, some of them are being used for writing workshops and retreats. All of them will predispose you to a bookish reverie…
Finally, the Michalski Foundation in Switzerland has been busy building different versions of treehouses by renowned Swiss architects. You can apply for a writing residency programme in one of those treehouses, very close to where I used to live (talk about bad timing for leaving the area!). Here are more details on how to apply (deadline is Sept. 30th, hence a Thursday rather than Friday Fun posting, to give you time to apply).
Let me introduce you today to homes of famous writers or artists, which no longer function as homes. In most cases, they’ve been pulled down to make way for progress, but not before bankrupting their owners.
Fortunately, some houses escaped this fate, even though the owner had to sell them to pay off debts. Alexandre Dumas, for instance, overreached himself when he built a magnificent chateau (known as the Chateau de Monte-Cristo) just outside Paris, including a little island with the most ambitious ‘writing shed’ in history.
In other words, still more inspirational houses that once belonged to writers and artists in France. Most of them have been turned into museums, although the last one has had an interesting fate.
Just in case you are thinking that these are all too good to be true (certainly without a talented gardener or two), below is a sad story of aspirations and loss.
The Manoir du Breuil near Calvados in Normandy belonged to Lucien Guitry, actor and father of the slightly more famous Sascha Guitry. Whenever Françoise Sagan spent the summer at Deauville in Normandy, she would look covetously at this house perched on a hill and occasionally be able to rent it for a few weeks. Then, one night in August 1958, she won a huge sum at roulette and the very next day she purchased this property.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending. The house required major renovation works, particularly after it was damaged by fire, but Sagan was a compulsive gambler, buyer of fancy sports cars, drinker and drug addict, so there was never enough money left over. A huge backdated tax bill was the final nail in the coffin. She was forced to sell the house, although the generous friend who bought it allowed her to continue living in part of it until her death. The house has now been completely remodelled by the current owner, the CEO of Eurotunnel.