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Laura Ford at Strawberry Hill House

19 August 2015 Imogen Greenberg

Strawberry Hill House, a mock Gothic mansion built by novelist Horace Walpole in Twickenham, has recently been restored to its 18th century state. It is also now home to a series of contemporary art installations from sculptor Laura Ford. London Calling went down there, and found mysterious figures leaping out from the dark corners of a twisting, Gothic mansion.

Strawberry Hill House is nestled in suburban Twickenham. The white gothic towers and tall stained-glass windows of the house stand out starkly against the rows of identical houses around it. Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister, an art historian, novelist, and reviver of Gothic style and tradition, built the house. His novel, The Castle of Otranto, inspired generations of Victorian Gothic novelists and imaginations.

Every visitor is given a copy of A Description of Strawberry Hill, written by Walpole. The rooms have been restored to how Walpole would have had them, right down to the wallpaper, so what he describes is what you see, and he acts as your guide. The rooms in the house are largely empty as Walpole’s poor descendents sold off the contents in a 40-day auction, so popular that a special auction house was built in the grounds.

The quarter of the house where Walpole’s bedroom, study and library are located is rich with Walpole’s words. Visitors are invited to sit in his study and read some of his many letters.  In one letter he writes to a friend: ‘It is scandalous, at my age, to have been carried backwards and forwards to balls and suppers and parties by very young people, as I was all last week’. This version of Walpole, who showed off and partied, can be seen elsewhere in the house, as you walk the lavish length of The Gallery, whose red and gold decoration is more than a little over the top.

In this corner of the house, Walpole dreamt up The Castle of Otranto.  In his dream, “I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine, filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour”. It is not hard to imagine this vision, when standing at the top of the staircase, looking down at Walpole’s Armoury. He wrote the novel in just a few weeks and you can trace other rooms of Prince Otranto’s castle through Strawberry Hill House.

Now, the contemporary installations of Laura Ford haunt the house like Walpole’s visions. In The Library, vast gothic bookcases rise to the ceiling, and small windows create dark, dusty corners. The fireplace is so over the top, it has its own turrets. Sprawled across the floor are Ford’s Armour Boys, suits of armour washed up from some fabled battle, or some nightmare of Walpole’s dreams, twisting and distorted. Laura Ford depicts children and animals, and anthropomorphic creatures in theatrical pieces rich with story. They suit the empty but lavish halls of the gothic mansion, which was as much a stage set of Walpole’s gothic imagination as a home. Director Nick Smith says Laura Ford was the perfect choice, because her work sits well with Walpole’s: it is whimsical, spooky, comes out of left field, and is surprising too.

Nick would like to work with more contemporary artists in future. Who does he have in mind? Hardly pausing, he answers Grayson Perry because like Laura Ford, he has a veneer of humour but there’s more to it than that. He also holds strong political and cultural stances, and Nick thinks that would suit Strawberry Hill House.

Nick’s favourite piece is Old Nick, which he feels best expresses the gothic imagination the house is seeped in. Is the creature a bear, a dog, or perhaps the devil? He smokes his pipe and hallucinates the naked lady dancing on his knee. Hidden in a dark and spooky room, Old Nick shows Ford’s playfulness. The sculptures work in the space because they have such expressive moods, sometimes witty and relishing their gothic splendour like Old Nick, and sometimes melancholy and lonely. In the Prior’s Garden, Weeping Girl II & III stand alone, their faces hidden beneath a mop of hair, in their little white dresses and plimsolls. Elsewhere in the garden, Last Days of Judgement, Ford’s cat sculptures (pictured) stalk the lawns, their faces hidden in shame or despair. The installations in the garden have been particularly popular, as its open to the public for free. But you have to see the whole house, and all of Ford’s installations, to feel the breadth of emotional response.

To wonder the house is a coming together of your own imagination with Ford’s. Sometimes, the light is just right and you come upon a statue and the creature could always have been there, craving attention. Laura Ford’s sculptures fill the rooms of Strawberry Hill House, complementing the gothic tradition that Walpole dreamed up. But they also fill the rooms with emotions, possibility and stories, lurking beneath the surface. It is you, the audience, who are invited to take the gothic mood and Ford’s mysterious sculptures, and with a touch of imagination, to bring Strawberry Hill House to life.

Laura Ford’s sculptures are at Strawberry Hill House until 6th November. For more information, please see the website.

 

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