We can’t know what Horace Walpole would make of the continuing popularity of serendipity, a word he coined in 1754 to describe the accidental happy discovery of a Renaissance portrait he had long been seeking. In 2001 it became the title of a romantic comedy and this year of a song by a South Korean boy band, which has had 74 million hits on YouTube. But we can imagine that he would be pleased that his lifelong effort to leave his mark on posterity has been so successful.
He was born (in 1717) with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, the youngest son of the all-powerful Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford and effectively Britain’s first prime minister. At 21 he was given government sinecures producing some £2,000 a year, and at 24 a seat in Parliament, freeing him from the need to earn a living. Undistracted by the responsibilities of high government office, a great estate or of family (he never married), he was able to devote his life to politics, writing, scholarship, obsessive collecting and the creation of his pioneering Gothic villa, Strawberry Hill.
Walpole was a complex character, in public a man of taste at the centre of politics and fashion, but in private a hardworking scholar and historian. His vivid record of these different worlds in some 4,000 often brilliant letters, published in 48 volumes, has been a main resource for historians ever since. That is exactly what he would have wished, for he saw the present as history in the making, although he came to prefer what he regarded as the certainties of the past, writing in 1766: ‘I almost think there is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams. Old Castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one.’
Strawberry Hill, his summer villa by the Thames in Twickenham, was the centre of his scholarly and creative endeavours and the setting for his huge collection of art and artefacts. Built between 1749 and 1790, it was very largely designed by Walpole and a group of his friends, as he said, ‘to please my own taste, and in some degree to realise my own visions’. Twickenham, being close to London, had many summer villas, but nearly all were in the classical style. Walpole’s West End townhouse was also classical, but at Strawberry Hill he created ‘the castle (I am building) of my ancestors’, pinnacled and battlemented. Houghton Hall, his father’s Palladian palace in Norfolk, was built as an expression of power and wealth; Strawberry Hill, filled with coats of arms, celebrated his family’s illustrious ancestry. Although the Gothic style was occasionally used in other buildings at the time, Strawberry Hill pioneered ideas that led directly to the more serious Gothic revival of later years. It was Gothic both inside and out, it lifted ‘quotations’ of details from ancient buildings for its architectural features, and dramatically broke the classical rule of strict symmetry. The result was a building that was both complex and picturesquely irregular, suggesting an organic development over centuries.
Walpole’s word for the effects of Gothic — ‘gloomth’ — did not mean the vision of dark and terrifying masses we associate with Gothic today, but rather an ‘irregular lightness and solemnity’. But for Walpole, Gothic crucially had a unique ability to summon up ideas and emotions. In the interiors at Strawberry Hill he enhanced the effects by the use of old stained glass and an extremely sophisticated manipulation of planning, decoration and the handling of light to vary atmosphere and mood, writing that he had ‘observed the impressions made on spectators by these arts’. A succession of dark and light episodes started in the grey hall, passed through the more cheerful private rooms and back to darkness in the purple Holbein Chamber before finishing in the blaze of light and crimson in the Gallery and other rooms of the State Apartment. This was the setting that inspired him to write, in 1764, The Castle of Otranto, the earliest Gothic novel, following a dream ‘of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour’. The bannister was just outside his bedchamber.
Walpole’s collection, too, played a role, in the form of a portrait of Lord Falkland of about 1603, ‘all in white’, which inspired the episode in which the figure of Manfred’s grandfather steps out of the picture frame, one of the many Gothic horror tropes established by the novel. By the time of Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill contained at least 4,000 objects, not counting several thousand prints, drawings and coins, acquired over some 55 years. They included paintings and sculpture of all periods, classical antiquities, historical curiosities, and a wide range of decorative arts, embracing several different collecting traditions, most notably the high art of European connoisseurs and the historic portraits and objects of British antiquarians.
Walpole was also a keen connoisseur of painting and the first historian of British art, publishing his Anecdotes of Painting at his own press. But he valued even more the way in which objects had the power to reach back to people and events in the past. Strawberry Hill, a house full of portraits, became a house full of stories, presenting distinctive aspects of British and European history in a pioneering and museum-like way. But equally striking was the sheer range and variety of works of art and objects, from drawings by Clouet to paintings by Van Dyck and Reynolds, miniatures by Holbein, carving by Grinling Gibbons, Sèvres porcelain, Boulle chests and historical relics like the hair of Mary Tudor and Cardinal Wolsey’s hat.
Almost from the start, Walpole had suspected that his house and collection would not long survive him. He accordingly recorded everything in detail in A Description of Strawberry Hill, printed at his own press in 1774 and 1784, in which he positioned himself as the successor to the great collectors of the past. In 1842 the collection was dispersed in a celebrated 24-day sale.
Now, 176 years later, many items are coming back to the restored interiors at Strawberry Hill and as far as possible are being returned to the places they were first shown. This exhibition presents a unique opportunity to assess Walpole’s achievement and experience his treasures, and Strawberry Hill, as he intended.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free