Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill at the V&A

The little blue-enamelled toothpick case left quite an impression. Not because it was so remarkably beautiful, but because it seemed so random, useless even – in a good way. Many of the items currently on display in the V&A’s exhibition on Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill are of that quality, and that’s their attraction. There are little boxes and caskets, finely painted china, vases, a C16th cardinal’s hat, a rosewood cabinet full of miniatures, and a wooden cravat Walpole apparently wore for a party at his home.

Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s summer villa by the Thames at Twickenham where all these items come from, was in itself more than a little bid odd. Designed as ‘a little gothic castle’ it revived the style of the Middle Ages and allegedly inspired the first Gothic novel, Walpole’s very dark and improbable Castle of Otranto. A number of items in the collection either directly or indirectly relate to that novel, such as John Carter’s painting of ‘The Entry of Frederick into the Castle of Otranto’, displaying a scene from the end of the book, or the Gothic lantern that was intended to contribute to the general mood of “gloomth” Walpole was so fond of.

In tune with the Gothic theme, there are a suit of armour and a pair of richly embroidered gauntlet gloves, stained glass panels and a “devil’s looking glass”. The library has a C13th Charter of the Forests and a Book of Arms. But there are also more recent items, such as satirical prints by the C18th caricaturist James Gillray, political ephemera, and Walpole’s own diaries from his time as an MP, all neatly catalogued by the man himself.

However, the famous antiquarian and collector sometimes got it wrong. A suit of armour he ascribed to Francis I of France (who died in 1547) is dated by the V&A curators around 1600, a miniature he thought was showing Catherine of Aragon actually depicted Anne Boleyn (a small difference), and the enamels on the rosewood cabinet were probably modelled on Rubens (not Palladio). These unlikely mistakes make one wonder whether he actually cared about the history and origin of the items themselves or whether he was more interested in what they represented – a glimpse of the past, curiosities from previous ages, ephemeral relics that speak to the imagination.

Significantly, as the curators point out, Walpole didn’t own many Old Masters. Aside from a few drawings by Holbein, he seemed to prefer the likes of Gillray and Hogarth, the gritty and the ugly, realistic as well as romanticized versions of real life.

There is no apparent system or theme behind the collection (except for the Gothic). Eclecticism springs to mind. But then again the exhibition might only show a tiny fraction of Walpole’s actual possessions, and the selection might be deliberately random to give a little taster of what one might see on an actual trip to Strawberry Hill.

In fact, this taste might be the main motivation behind the exhibition. After a 9 million pound restoration Walpole’s home at Twickenham is due to re-open to the public in September, and visitors to the V&A are eligible for a 2 for 1 ticket.

Horace Walpole & Strawberry Hill at the V & A, 6 March – 4 July 2010


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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