Life & Culture

Strawberry Hill's Jewish history

A neo-gothic stately home has a surprising Jewish history


Strawberry Hill in Twickenham is England’s ultimate neo-gothic folly. Kenneth Clark described it as a “monument to mood”, echoing the poetic sensibility of its novelist creator, Horace Walpole. By 1763, with the assistance of his antiquarian friends, Walpole had grafted an eccentric medley of towers, battlements and a cloister on to his suburban villa. The interiors were equally evocative, with fan-vaulted stucco ceilings and fragments of stained glass, exuding the warmth and seclusion that Walpole dubbed “gloomth”.

Peer around the corner, though, and the visitor will see that this iconic Georgian building also has a Victorian wing. Between 1860-62, the new resident of Strawberry Hill, the Countess Waldegrave, substantially enlarged Walpole’s house. Her portrait is still discernible on the façade of the new wing, just as her coat of arms, and proud monogram (FW), can be detected in stained glass panels, on door handles and inlaid in the parquet floor of the Gallery. Frances, Countess Waldegrave, cut a remarkable figure in Victorian society not just because of her gender, and influence as a political hostess, but because of her Jewish background.

Her story is at the heart of a new digital exhibition, which seeks to shed light on the unexpected Jewish histories of Strawberry Hill. This forms a sequel, in some ways, to the triumphant reunion of some of Walpole’s fabled collection in Twickenham in 2019. If that show celebrated Strawberry at its heyday, this new exhibition tells the forgotten story of how successive “Jewish” actors — not just Lady Waldegrave but also the Stern family at the dawn of the 20th century — helped bring the house and its collections back to life.

These saviours of Strawberry Hill occupied an unconventional place in elite British society. Lady Waldegrave was the daughter of John Braham, the superstar Jewish tenor of Regency London. Born in poverty in Whitechapel in 1774, Braham had been taken under the wing of Meyer Lyon, an opera singer under the alias Michel Leoni, but who also worked as cantor at Duke’s Place Synagogue. From his beginnings as a meshorrer, or junior chazan, Braham gained the patronage of the Goldsmid family, and made his debut at Covent Garden in 1787.

From there he created a sensation in European houses, and in 1815 helped Isaac Nathan to set Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies to music. His gifts as a performer were not matched by a head for business, and in later life he fled to the continent to avoid debtors’ prison, after the St James’s theatre which he had built with his savings went bankrupt.

In 1816 he had married 17-year-old Elisabeth Bolton, the Anglican niece of Braham’s concert promoter, and together they had six children. Frances inherited her mother’s good looks and her religion. This did not prevent Frances being perceived as Jewish by her peers: the Earl of Carnarvon called her a “Jewess” in his diaries and speculated this fact explained her sympathy for the policies of Benjamin Disraeli.

Far from being embarrassed by her origins, Frances played on them to humorous effect. “She was a woman of very determined character,” Dorothy Nevill recalled, and whenever unknown people were introduced at a party, she would joke “I am sure that everyone will say they are some of my vulgar relatives.”

This captures Frances’s impatience with aristocratic conventions surrounding women’s place: she continued to support her relatives in the theatre industry — three of her brothers became opera singers and managed the St James’s theatre — and she took no fewer than four husbands. When her first husband, John Waldegrave, died in 1840, she swiftly married his brother George, the seventh Earl Waldegrave, who was in turn the grandson of Horace Walpole’s great niece. The marriage was not happy, but it did make her the inheritor of Strawberry Hill.

The house was in a dire state: her dissolute husband oversaw the sale of the Horace Walpole collections in 1842. In private the rest of the Waldegrave family lamented to see “the trinkets of Strawberry Hill… fall into the hands of a Jewess and are sold”. Yet over the following decades Frances proved how deeply she desired to restore the house to its former glory, not just through extensive renovations (paid for with her third husband’s money), but also through buying back some of the dispersed Walpole treasures. The house became the ideal setting for the brilliant social gatherings in which she brought together Whigs and Tories: addicted to political intrigue, she was deeply involved in the career of her fourth husband, Chichester Fortescue, who served in Gladstone’s cabinet.

Lady Waldegrave is underrated as a collector and as a champion of contemporary Victorian painters. Alongside the full-length portrait of her father which hung in the drawing room, she also commissioned from Edward Lear — an intimate friend of Chichester Fortescue — two scenes from his 1857 travels in the Holy Land; Jerusalem and Masada. Lear adored the “picturesqueness” of Masada, believing it embodied “one of the extremist developments of the Hebrew character ie. consistency of purpose & immense patriotism.”

After Frances’s death in 1879, the house was acquired by Hermann de Stern, listed as the thirteenth richest man in London. The co-founder of Stern brothers’ bank in London, Hermann was also an active member of the Anglo-Jewish Association and a patron of the Jews’ Free School; his title of Baron de Stern had been conferred by the Portuguese crown.

The pan-European social and cultural world of the Sterns is captured in a photographic album featured within the exhibition: here we can see cartes-de-visite of family, notable friends and celebrities, such as their daughter’s piano teacher, Clara Schumann.

Hermann’s son Herbert became elevated —not without some grumbling — as Lord Michaelham in 1905. His bride was Christian, Aimee Geraldine Bradshaw, and she took the lead in bringing a new note of luxury to Strawberry Hill. To do so she drew heavily on the services of Joseph Duveen, the outstanding art dealer of the early twentieth century. Duveen’s father had been a Dutch Sephardi migrant, who built up a thriving import business in Hull. His son would become the arbiter of taste and counsellor to millionaires on both sides of the Atlantic.

In his diaries, he referred to Geraldine Stern, a very loyal customer, under the nickname ‘Cupid’. Duveen was central in introducing into the Sterns’ homes in London and Paris suites of elegant French furniture, along with fashionable Georgian portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough. Perhaps the star purchase was the vivacious 1794 portrait by Thomas Lawrence of the 12-year-old Sarah Barratt Moulton, known today as Pinkie, bought through Duveen in 1910 (and now hanging in the Huntington mansion, Pasadena).

Edwardian Strawberry Hill played host to some memorable society gatherings, welcoming competitors and officials from the 1908 Olympic Games, while the entertainment at a 1914 fancy dress ball was supplied by mimes, a baby elephant frolicking in the gardens and ballerina Anna Pavlova, interpreter of the dying swan.

But while the Sterns lived and partied in high style, their patriotism was also irreproachable. Herbert de Stern played a crucial role in underwriting the costs of purchasing the Rokeby Venus, by Velazquez, for the National Gallery, and in 1912 paid £20,000 for the bronze chariot sitting atop of Wellington Arch (the facial features of the charioteer were apparently modelled on Lord Michaelham’s son).

When war broke out the Michaelhams threw themselves into philanthropic work from their base in Paris, funding convalescent homes and a hospital train, and securing for Geraldine the award of the Legion d’honneur in 1915.

Curated by Silvia Davoli — with the collaboration of curators, scholars and the descendants of Lady Waldegrave’s descendants- the exhibition draws on a wealth of surviving images and objects to illuminate the different owners who left their mark on Walpole’s folly. A vivid slice of cultural history, it reminds us that some of Britain’s historic houses can also illuminate Anglo-Jewish heritage.


Thomas Stammers is associate professor in modern European cultural history, University of Durham. On March 24, Silvia Davoli will be giving an online talk discussing her research, followed by a conversation with Thomas Stammers.


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive