Scattered pieces from Horace Walpole’s important collection have come home to the exact spots he chose for them at Strawberry Hill
In 1842, one of the most important art collections in the country, that of politician, writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717-97), was auctioned and its carefully assembled contents scattered to a myriad of new owners. Spread over 24 days, the sale was an important society event, with special steamers laid on to take prospective buyers and tourists down the Thames from the centre of London to Walpole’s gothic revival creation, Strawberry Hill House, in Twickenham. Thomas Cubitt no less built a huge temporary structure in the grounds of the house for the sale, which raised the considerable sum of £33,000.
Now more than 170 pieces from the sale have been brought home in the splendid exhibition Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill: Masterpieces from Horace Walpole’s Collection, and installed exactly as they were in Walpole’s time. Although this remarkable house opened to the public in 2010 after a painstaking restoration to its 18th century state by Peter Inskip & Peter Jenkins, with a second phase completing in 2015, this exhibition enables it to be appreciated in its full splendour, as Walpole intended.
The son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, Walpole created Strawberry Hill as his summer residence between 1749 and 1790, working with a group of designers and architects to provide a splendid home for his growing collection of paintings, ceramics, coins and artefacts. The castellated house was an expression of his gothic taste, referencing medieval architecture to varying degrees of authenticity in the same way that neoclassical architects looked to antiquity. Highlights include the first ever gothic revival library, complete with bookcases inspired by a doorway in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the fan-vaulted Gallery, which channels Elizabethan, baroque and monastic influences.
For co-curators Michael Snodin and Silvia Davoli, the exhibition is the culmination of four years of detective work to track down and secure loans or acquisitions from more than 40 lenders, in association with the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. Arranging them in the house was relatively easy, thanks to Walpole’s own catalogue, A Description of Strawberry Hill, which revealed where and how each item was displayed.
‘The description was his way of making his mark on history and establishing himself as part of a line of distinguished collectors,’ says Snodin, describing Strawberry Hill as a sort of ‘proto-National Portrait Gallery’.
The exhibition conveys the eclectic nature of the collection, which included important pieces from antiquity as well as choice works by Hans Holbein the Younger and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and curios such as a red hat once owned by Cardinal Wolsey – Walpole was particularly interested in objects, and architecture, with a story to tell. Visiting today, the overwhelming impression is the number of portraits – Walpole lived alone except for servants and guests but Strawberry Hill was evidently generously populated with paintings of him and his family as well as historical subjects. Rather than feeling empty, this summerhouse was positively brimming with images of people.
‘Nearly all Walpole’s paintings were portraits. This is a bachelor pad, surrounded by these huge portraits of people. It was like a big family,’ says Snodin, adding that the intimate atmosphere of the house creates a very different, more experiential setting for many of the exhibits. ‘When you move a portrait from an art gallery to a house it does something – it just looks different. Here, they sing out.’
Other highlights include a miniatures cabinet designed by Walpole to house 86 portrait miniatures and enamels. This is normally to be found behind glass at the Victoria & Albert Museum but is here in the position Walpole chose for it above a fireplace in The Tribune. There is also Grinling Gibbons’ virtuoso limewood carving of an embroidered cravat, which Walpole famously wore once to greet guests, and a first century AD Roman eagle, whose beak was broken off in Walpole’s day by thieving visitors (but is now restored).
The idea of retrieving and reuniting a lost collection and reinstating it as it once was is highly unusual. ‘And it’s not just any old collection – arguably the most famous collection of the 18th century in a building which was conceived to receive it,’ says Snodin.
When I last visited Strawberry Hill, the grade I listed house was stripped back and vulnerable in the throes of its restoration. What a joy to see it now in all its magnificence.
An accompanying book by Silvia Davoli, published by Scala, is £15.