Horace Walpole was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Britain, and was educated at Eton and Cambridge; he went on the Grand Tour with Thomas Gray the poet, but had a disagreement and parted in Tuscany (it has been suggested that Walpole made a pass at Gray, there’s no proof of this, or that he was gay, but it seems likely), although they were later reconciled, Walpole printing much of Gray’s poetry on his private Strawberry Hill Press.
Walpole bought Strawberry Hill in 1748 and kept it as his summer villa until his death in 1797. By the Thames between Twickenham and Hampton, on the road to Hampton Court, it was just down the road from Alexander Pope’s Villa; starting as a modest house called ‘Chopped-Straw Hall’, by the time Walpole finished extending and remodelling it had become his ‘little Gothic castle’, complete with towers and crenellations.
John Chute and Richard Bentley joined Walpole to form his ‘Committee of Taste’, which oversaw the rebuilding and decorating of the house, some of the design was by Adam. The interior was intended not only to house his collection but also to create an atmosphere of ‘gloomth’, and was the inspiration for Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel. Abbeys and cathedrals supplied ideas for the design of windows, fireplaces and ceilings; the library, the most gothic room of all, used medieval ideas with ornate book presses. A colourful flower garden (unusual at the time) was created next to the house to contrast with the rather chiaroscuro effect of the interior.
In an age of collecting he was a compulsive collector – he filled the house with books, historical prints, works of art, antiquities and curios, ancient and modern, although he especially sought after those with strong historical associations; however, he got the provenance of many wrong, sometimes Walpole’s belief of the date and place of manufacture was incorrect, and the subjects of some of the paintings were misidentified. He commissioned portraits of his family, and in many ways tried to create an ancestral home of the Walpoles.
On 25 April 1842 the sale of the contents of Strawberry Hill opened and lasted for 32 days, a special building having been erected in the grounds and a Thames boat service being provided to transport buyers to the sale.
An American, Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis spent much of his life and the twentieth century collecting as many items from Strawberry Hill, and with other Walpolian connections, as he could. His collection was bequested to Yale University and became the Lewis Walpole Library, and has now formed the core of an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Horace Walpole & Strawberry Hill, which has run from 6 March to 4 July this year.
Walpole owned many portraits, and attempted to collect a set of all the monarchs of Britain. He acquired suits of armour with supposed royal provenance; furniture, some with the appearance of greater antiquity than it had; over 100 pieces of early glass; the largest collection of ceramics in England (including a large Chinese ceramic vase he used as a fishbowl, and in which his cat Selima drowned); what he considered to be the largest collection of miniatures and enamels in the country; and many other, some rather odd, curios.
The items that stood out for me in the exhibition were those I had particularly wanted to see. Walpole owned a mirror which was purportedly the mirror used by Elizabethan magician John Dee to conjure demons, I am sure he would have been just as fascinated to know that its origin is Aztec, a disc of polished obsidian; disappointingly, when I looked in it there was just a normal reflection, no demons visible.
In his collection was a pair of rather large red embroidered gauntlets which had belonged to James I; also a wooden cravat, limewood lace carved by Grinling Gibbons, who Walpole revered. The house had become a popular tourist attraction, to the extent that Walpole issued tickets and produced a set of Rules for visitors*; on one occasion he wore the gloves and cravat to greet some French visitors; their bemused servants apparently thought this was standard attire for an English ‘milord’. It’s a shame he wasn’t also wearing Cardinal Wolsey’s hat as well.
I wish I had got to the exhibition earlier in its run, rather than on the penultimate day, as I would have liked to have gone back and had another look; I had this intent with the Paul Sandby exhibition at the Royal Academy and managed to forget the return visit, so I was pleased to see a couple of Sandby paintings here.
I’m now looking forward to the autumn, when Strawberry Hill is opening to the public following a £8.9 million restoration. I still read in various places that it will reopen in September, but according to their own website they are only taking bookings for ‘behind the scenes’ tours for groups in that month.
Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto is today more likely to cause chuckling that swooning, although when it was first published readers were too scared to go to sleep after reading it. I found it quite amusing, it was the first gothic novel, as such spawning an enormous genre leading up to the Hammer horror films and beyond (to Twilight?); it should be required reading before Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey – much of the latter part of this is a parody of The Castle of Otranto.
When I emerged from perusing Walpole’s eclectic collection I had a look at the (free entry) 1:1 – Architects Build Small Spaces Exhibition which is running until 30 August. “The V&A invited nineteen architects to submit proposals for structures that examine notions of refuge and retreat. From these nineteen concept submissions, seven were selected for construction at full-scale.” There’s loads of information, blogs, videos, etc, available on the V&A website, so I won’t say too much here, except that I fancy owning Ark – a free-standing wooden tower with a staircase inside, the façades consist of hundreds of shelves, holding about 6000 books, all facing inwards. The Scandinavian architects, Rintala Eggertsson Architects, are Norwegian, so no IKEA jokes needed.
*INSTRUCTIONS TO PERSONS WISHING TO VIEW THE VILLA AND ITS COLLECTIONS
Mr. Walpole is very ready to oblige any curious Persons with the Sight of his House and Collection ; but as it is situated so near to London and in so populous a Neighbourhood, and as he refuses a Ticket to nobody that sends for one, it is but reasonable that such Persons as send, should comply with the Rules he has been obliged to lay down for showing it.
Any Person, sending a Day or two before, may have a Ticket for Four Persons for a Day certain.
No Ticket will serve but on the Day doe which it is given. If more than Four Persons come with a Ticker, the Housekeeper has positive Orders to admit none of them.
Every Ticket will admit the Company only between the Hours of Twelve and Three before Dinner, and only one Company will be admitted on the same Day.
The House will never be shown after Dinner ; nor at all but from the First of May to the First of October.
As Mr. Walpole has given Offence by sometimes enlarging the Number of Four, and refusing that Latitude to others, he flatters himself that for the future nobody will take it ill that he strictly confines the Number ; as whoever desires him to break his Rule, does in effect expect him to disoblige others, which is what nobody has a right to desire of him.
Persons desiring a Ticket, may apply either to Strawberry-Hill, or to Mr. Walpole’s in Berkeley-Square, London. If any Person does not make use of the Ticket, Mr. Walpole hopes he shall have Notice ; otherwise he is prevented from obliging others on that Day, and thence is put to great Inconvenience.
They who have Tickets are desired not to bring Children.
P.S. Strawberry Hill House is again open to visitors – see my newer post.