Swellboy on… the cosiness of gloom

The onset of winter can be viewed in a pale but positive light

Image: Brijesh Patel

The other day I was discharging my duties as a judge in one or other of the categories of Walpole, which I suppose is the closest thing that the British luxury goods industry has to a trade union, when my mind started to wander towards Twickenham in the 18th century and away from the earnest philosophical debate as to whether Harrods was more of a luxury brand than Burberry. (The right answer is of course Harrods, all day, every day and twice a day in the summer – whether my fellow judges shared that opinion will be revealed some time in November.) But the reason my mind chose to stray to Twickenham circa 1748 was because that was where and when Horace Walpole’s summer villa, Strawberry Hill, was built.

You see I am trying to view the onset of winter in a positive light and I believe dear old Horace can help. He was a pioneer of the gothic, he wrote a gothic novel called The Castle of Otranto, he intended Strawberry Hill to be a little gothic castle and filled it with gothic detailing and knick-knacks. I know Ruskin claims to have launched the trend for suburban gothic with his essay on the subject inThe Stones of Venice and of course I yield to no man in my admiration for the great Victorian art critic; nevertheless Horace W was at it a full century before Ruskin and to look, as I recently did, at an old engraving of the staircase at Strawberry Hill is to be reminded of the Danieli Hotel in Venice.


Anyway, I am not about to transform my speculatively built small shabby terraced house in west London into a mini Venetian palazzo – I think the planning authorities of the Royal Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham might take a dim view. However, I am trying to unlock the pleasures of what Walpole called “gloomth”, an elision, so I understand it, of gloom and warmth: “golden gloom” was another Walpolism that I am trying to learn to love.

Cosy gloom seems a comforting rather than a depressing idea. It seems that Walpole wanted nothing more than to turn his holiday home into a medieval abbey, which required among other things copious quantities of stained glass, through which the already pale British sunlight would be further muted, and furnishings modelled on or actually from the Middle Ages. I figure that if a mind as sophisticated as Walpole’s liked this sort of penumbral atmosphere, then I too can learn to overcome the seasonal battle that my mood has with the short dark days of winter and instead revel in the gloomth that I will create in my house.


Accordingly I am doing what I can to remodel the interior of my house along Walpolian lines, which, among other things, will require me installing a chimneypiece inspired by the tomb of Edward the Confessor. Sadly for some reason my local branch of Homebase was out of Edward the Confessor funereal fireplaces when I dropped by, and somehow I think I am going to have difficulty in getting Messrs Everest to supply me with stained glass windows. The pleasures of “gloomth” will, it seems, evade me for some time to come.

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