Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill

Horace Walpole is a fascinating and enigmatic figure in British history, son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and one of the most famous collectors of the British eighteenth century. He has been remembered as the author of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and as the creator of Strawberry Hill, his extraordinary mid-eighteenth-century Gothic Revival country house at Twickenham, in southwest London. However, he was best known to contemporaries for his collections of historical associational objects and of relics suiting his “Gothic Castle.”

Following the storied 1842 sale at Strawberry Hill of his paintings, ceramics, and relics--and thousands of books--his collections have been widely dispersed, concentrated mainly in British private and public collections and in Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, CT, and rarely on public view.

Until now.

Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum have collaborated to produce a truly remarkable exhibition, bringing together original letters and drawings, books, artworks, and furnishings belonging to Horace Walpole, in essence recreating the Strawberry Hill collections. As well as being a fascinating look at Strawberry Hill and Walpole himself, the exhibition conveys a great deal about the history of collecting and collections in eighteenth-century Britain.

As a book person, I found Walpole’s keen interest in association especially interesting. As Pepys did a century earlier, and as so many modern collectors have done, Walpole collected books, antiquities, and objets d’art with a particular eye towards their prior owners and prior uses, inventing a tangible sense of history with which he could--and did--surround himself. For example, he kept “curious books,” those with particularly important or meaningful associations, in a particular glass case in the Strawberry Hill library. (Some of those books, and other marvelous books and manuscripts from his library, are on view in a room that also features original sketches and architectural details of the library.)

Through January 3, 2010, the exhibition will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art, its only American destination, then moving to the V&A. It is accompanied by a brilliant collection of essays and catalog, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, edited by Michael Snodin, with the assistance of Cynthia Roman, that has been meticulously researched and finely illustrated and covers every aspect of Walpole’s collections, including a chapter on his books and manuscripts. If you’re still searching for last-minute gifts, it would be a great candidate for any bookish library (Yale University Press, $85).
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