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Yale Center for British Art Reassembles Horace Walpole's Pioneering Collection
Follower of Nicholas Poussin, The Feeding of the Child Jupiter, ca.1650, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- “I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill,” declared Horace Walpole in January 1750. An influential antiquarian and man of letters, Walpole (1717-1797) was one of the most important English collectors of the eighteenth century. In 1747 he leased a modest house along the Thames in Twickenham, outside London. Over the next fifty years Walpole expanded the grounds from five to forty-six acres and, with the help of his “Strawberry Committee,” transformed the cottage into the first celebrated building designed in the Gothic Revival style. He added towers and battlements and filled the house with a collection of treasures that reflected his personal fascination with history, art, and architecture. Today Walpole’s villa remains standing, but most of its former contents are scattered throughout other collections around the globe, having been sold off at auction in 1842 by Walpole’s heir, George Edward Waldegrave, the seventh Earl Waldegrave.

In spite of its importance, Horace Walpole’s vast collection as it was formed and arranged at Strawberry Hill has never been the subject of a comprehensive critical study. This fall, the Yale Center for British Art will present the first major exhibition to evoke the breadth and significance of Walpole’s efforts by reassembling an astonishing variety of nearly three hundred objects once owned by him, including rare books and manuscripts, antiquities, paintings, prints, drawings, furniture, ceramics, arms and armor, and curiosities. Entitled Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, the exhibition will analyze the history and reception of Walpole’s collection and the ways in which he described and catalogued it in numerous publications and manuscripts. Walpole was the first person in England to assemble systematically the visual evidence of English history and the first to recognize the importance of the portrait miniature in the history of British art. More than simply reassembling and documenting individual objects, this groundbreaking exhibition will explore the range of the collection, the meaning of Walpole’s pursuits, and the broader cultural contexts in which he operated. In particular, the exhibition will look at the ways in which Walpole used his house and collection to construct different histories: political, national, dynastic, cultural, and imaginary.

The exhibition, which will travel to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in the spring of 2010, is timed at a critical moment in the history of Strawberry Hill. In 2004, the house was included in the World Monuments Fund (WMF) Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The WMF and the Strawberry Hill Trust, together with the Friends of Strawberry Hill, are in the midst of a campaign to conserve the structure and interiors, a project to which the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, and the WMF have awarded substantial grants. At present, the house is scheduled to open to the general public in late summer 2010. Special behind-the-scenes tours will be arranged from September 2010 onward.

That Strawberry Hill still stands today is nothing short of miraculous. Walpole himself fretted that “my buildings are paper, like my writings, and both will blow away in ten years after I am dead.” Many of the house’s architectural details, including the vaulting and tracery, were fashioned in wood, stucco, and papier-mâché instead of carved stone, and are now in a precarious condition. During his lifetime, Walpole spent £21,000 creating Strawberry Hill—a vast fortune in the eighteenth century. The Strawberry Committee included Richard Bentley (d. 1782), an artist and draughtsman, and the architect John Chute (1701–1776), who designed much of the exterior of the house and many of its interiors. Walpole took his inspiration from details of Gothic buildings and adapted them to his own purposes. His approach, and that of the Committee, was not a scholarly one; in 1794 Walpole owned in a letter that the rooms at Strawberry Hill were “more the works of fancy than of imitation.” The library’s Gothic arched bookcases are modeled on a choir screen seen in an engraving of London’s Old St. Paul’s Cathedral; the Long Gallery’s fan-vaulted ceiling is copied from one in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey; and the Tribune, where Walpole kept his valuable collection of miniatures, sculpture, cabinet paintings, and Roman, medieval, and Renaissance antiquities, is named after the room in Florence’s Uffizi Palace in which the Medici family displayed their most precious possessions. Fortunately, Walpole assiduously preserved the history and meaning of his collections for posterity. In particular, he published a detailed description of the house and its contents, copies of which he and others annotated and extra-illustrated. He commissioned artists to record the interior and exterior of the building with meticulous detail and even annotated some of the objects himself.

In its day, Walpole’s Strawberry Hill was a significant tourist destination. Visiting the house was an extraordinary experience and the public flocked to see it. Important visitors were taken round by Walpole, while others would receive various (and sometimes questionable) tours from Walpole’s housekeeper, Margaret, who profited from the takings. Enthusiasts no doubt count the days until Strawberry Hill is once again open to the public. Until then, the Yale Center for British Art, as the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, will offer a unique opportunity to experience Walpole’s Strawberry Hill first hand.

Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole was the youngest son of Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, and the powerful Whig prime minister under both George I and George II. Horace’s birthright placed him at the center of society and politics, and of literary, aesthetic, and intellectual circles. He was educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, although he never earned a degree. He served as a member of Parliament from 1741 to 1767 and became the fourth Earl of Orford in 1791.

Horace Walpole’s brilliant letters and other writings have made him the best-known commentator on the social, political, and cultural life of eighteenth-century England, but in his own day he was most famous for his collections displayed at Strawberry Hill and for writing The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first Gothic novel, which was directly inspired by Strawberry Hill. Walpole, who never married, first leased and then purchased the small house at Strawberry Hill for £1,356 and ten shillings. By the time of his death, he had expanded the property and transformed the building into his celebrated “little Gothic castle.” In the final decade of his life he befriended the writer Mary Berry and her sister, Agnes, who were then in their twenties. In 1791, the two moved, with their father, to Little Strawberry Hill, near Walpole’s home, and remained close friends with Walpole until his death.

Horace Walpole | Strawberry Hill | Gothic Revival style | Strawberry Committee | Yale Center for British Art |  |

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