At the time of Jane Austen’s birth on the sixteenth day of December 1775, Horace Walpole, 4th Earl Orford (1717- 1797) was already using decorative ornament at Strawberry Hill, his ‘Gothick’ styed villa nearby the Thames at Twickenham in the London borough of Richmond. Its forms were inspired by a literary and pictorial interest in his country and its historical past.
‘Strawberry Hill…is the prettiest bauble you ever saw. It is set in enamelled meadows, with filigree hedges’ wrote Horace Walpole to his friend Henry Seymour Conway on the eighth of June 1747
Strawberry Hill was a peacefully pleasant rural retreat; evident from the painting of it commissioned twenty years earlier from a young artist from Switzerland. An intimate of Walpole’s, Richard Bentley, recommended that Johann Heinrich Müntz a German-Swiss painter and garden designer, should reassure his dilettante friend that Müntz was well able to ‘paint perspectives…cathedral aisles, and holy glooms’. ‘
Art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and politician Horace Walpole took what he liked and used it the way he wanted.
His character seemingly enjoyed the satisfaction of ‘imprinting the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals on one’s house.’ He and his friends were bound together by their interests and sense of humour. And, they were drawn exclusively from the world of aristocracy and privilege.
“I can think of no being happier than Horry,” wrote his friend Gilly Williams, of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), who always described himself as the “youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford’.
He went on a Grand Tour with his friend Thomas Grey 1716 – 1771). Grey was an English poet, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge university, who later wrote what is considered his master piece, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
When he came back from abroad Horry entered Parliament and constituted himself as the prime observer of the age. “I am a dancing senator. Not that I do dance, or do anything by being a senator, but I go to balls and to the House of Commons – to look on”.
Horace Walpole was the first man to systematically assemble visual evidence of English history and much of his collection is now held at Yale University in New Haven, New England in America. He was also the Member of Parliament for Callington, a borough in east Cornwall, which is now extant.
He and his peers established standards for excellence and wanted seen as both arbiters of taste and style. They were well recognised by Jane Austen and her peers, and most especially by the burgeoning middle classes who wished to emulate them.
The eighteenth century was a no nonsense robust time, one in which an archbishop could keep a mistress and appoint his illegitimate son a chaplain, while on the other hand providing no such advantages for those ‘downstairs’.
No wonder so many sought to go into the church.
In the arts Horace Walpole was an observer. He knew a great deal and was as infinitely curious about the past as he was about the present. His contribution is that he discovered, or re-discovered, a certain kind of literary pleasure. For that of elaborating the appeal of history by imitating historical monuments.
His father statesman Sir Robert Walpole (1676 – 1745) was at the top of the political tree as England’s 1st Prime Minister, serving under both George I and George II. He was often from home when Horry was growing up so it would not be until later in his life that he would grow to appreciate and enjoy the wit, talent and eccentric flippancy of his youngest offspring, who despite a fragile exterior and delicate health managed to achieve eighty years.
A small man, slim in figure, Horace Walpole absolutely adored women of all ages, constantly craving female companionship, because it was in their presence that he could most relax and be his confiding and creative self. His friendships with the chosen men of his acquaintance were equally happy.
According to his biographer, Brian Fothergill, although Walpole was considered foppish by some, he was not homosexual, but rather suppressed and hid his true nature. ‘Pray mind” Horace once told Sir Horace Mann when describing how he was roused from sleep by an earthquake tremor in 1750, “Pray mind, I lie alone”.
Horry’s correspondence was vast. Second hand books of collections of Horace Walpole’s extraordinary letters to his friends, family and acquaintances are available today for a very small sum in antiquarian bookshops.
They give a lively account of his very interesting life, multifarious interests and throw a great deal of light onto the many facets and fancies of his complicated character.
The nature of his various relationships with people were completely fascinating. Some were influenced only because he was such an acknowledged arbiter of taste. The rest had a unique interest in that they were the lucky ones who received letters from him.
And such letters they were. Full of prose and written in his engaging style. They perfectly capture the society, times and the circle in which he moved. ‘
The house is so small [Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann] that I can send it you in a letter to look at: the prospect is as delightful as possible, commanding the river, the town, and Richmond park; and being situated on a hill descends to the Thames through two or three little meadows, where I have some Turkish sheep and two cows, all studied in their colours for becoming the view’.
Just as he made his house famous, his letters made him also. This was an age of great letter writing as it was the only form of communication. So unless one could write effortlessly, easily and also as adequately as Horry could, all sorts of misunderstandings would take place. And, they did, just like the character’s in Jane Austen’s books.
Strawberry Hill had its own famous printing press and so Walpole was able to publish his own writing. In the library the design of his bookcases and chimneypiece were based on medieval tombs and choir screens. He conceived and wrote here one of the earliest of all English Gothick novels , which he published in 1764 anonymously as ‘The Castle of Otranto‘. It blended two kinds of romance, ancient and modern and it was a great success.
His major works include
Some Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762)
The Castle of Otranto (1764)
The Mysterious Mother (1768)
Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III (1768)
On Modern Gardening (1780)
A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole (1784)
Hieroglyphic Tales (1785)
He often pondered. ‘When will the world know that peace and propagation are the two most delightful things in it?
Two friends, Richard Bentley, with a decided flair for the fashionable rococo design, and John Chute, whose architectural skills included drawing plans and elevations, were co-opted onto his ‘Strawberry Committee’, their talents complementing each other.
They assisted and supported him while he planned and carried out extensive alterations and additions to the rather ‘non descript place purchased amidst meadows in Twickenham with a view of the Thames’, that he wanted to turn into his elegant villa, Strawberry Hill.
Where silver Thames round Twit’nam meads
His winding current sweetly leads;
Twit’nam, the Muse’s fav’rite seat,
Twit’nam, the Graces’ lov’d retreat…
He decided on the Gothick style for Strawberry, because he believed ‘columns and all their beautiful ornaments look ridiculous when crowded into a closet or cheese- cake house’ and, he wanted to imprint ‘the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals’ on his own.
The architecture of the medieval period particularly appealed to his nature, especially following his Grand Tour where he visited copious cathedrals and churches. He loved their atmosphere and the mental impressions they made.
All in all, his Strawberry Hill Gothick, (with a k) as it later came to be known seems correct for a man who said “I like to be here”, which he also wrote to Horace Mann when he was at Florence.
Walpole admired the talented designer William Kent, who worked for Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. He said Kent had “leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden’ and that the one he designed was definitely more suited to an English climate than the more formal layout of parterre and terraces in the Frenchified or Italianate taste.
Horry was brought up at Houghton Hall where Burlington’s protégé Kent also worked for his father? Kent had evolved a flimsy decorative equivalent for the Gothick when he was rebuilding part of the Clock Court previously at Hampton Court. At first he proposed a classical building, but Sir Robert Walpole, for whom he was working at Houghton, (not usually remembered for promoting the Gothic), induced him to abandon this idea totally and imitate the original Tudor work of the old palace.
At Esher Lodge between 1729 and 39 Kent was also involved in the reconstruction of Tudor buildings. He worked at the Courts of Chancery and on the King’s Bench at the south end of Westminster Hall (1738-9) as well as the screen in Gloucester Cathedral (1742).
He selected Gothick features that appealed to him and arranged them to suit his classically trained tastes.
Kent’s style in 1736 was described as ‘modern Gothick’ and he was praised for its delicacy and whimsicality. These were qualities hardly found in the Gothic of architects like Christopher Wren or John Vanbrugh, but certainly more appropriate to the creations of a designer of William Kent’s standing.
As Kent did not pass away until 1748 it would be reasonable to assume Horry may have come under Kent’s influence to some degree.
Horry’s view of life undoubtedly was formed through his experiences in the hallowed halls of eighteenth century Eton, which was not a place for a physically delicate, nervous and highly strung boy. Just enduring and surviving the rough justice meted out, the frequent floggings and occasional riots, would have tested the toughest of men.
It is also a testament to the strength and depth of his character, which he kept mainly hidden behind an epicene exterior. As early as 1736, when he was just 19, he compiled a manuscript catalogue of the pictures at Houghton Hall, giving their sizes and the names of the artists. (This collection was later purchased by Catherine the Great). He had found growing up at Houghton depressing, and this meant he became involved in studying medieval and early Gothic architecture, the style he finally imposed at Strawberry Hill.
He first acquired Strawberry when he was thirty and over the next forty-four years gradually reconstructed the house using no fewer than ten architects. His acquisition of pictures, sculpture, furniture and objets d’art of every period and style, occupied much of his time. Not satisfied with just designing the architecture, he wanted to go a step further.
He and his intimates became avid collectors to furnish their new interiors, preferring old furniture although mixing it with new when he couldn’t find what he wanted. They would advertise and scour the countryside to obtain it and this is perhaps the first recorded instance of ‘antique furniture collecting’, carried out mainly because of its romantic historical associations.
“Dicky Bateman has picked up a whole cloister full of old chairs in Herefordshire” he related “he bought them one and one here and there in farm houses for three and sixpence and a crown a piece. They are of wood, the seats are triangular, the back, arms and legs loaded with turnery a thousand to one there are plenty up and down Cheshire too.”
He had started the garden before he started the house. When wanting large trees he lamented that he lived ‘in so barbarous an age’ where this was not yet possible, although cleverly observing, ‘that in ‘a hundred and fifty years hence it will be as common to move oaks a hundred and fifty years old as it is now to transplant tulip roots’ and ‘the way to ensure summer in England is to have it framed and glazed in a comfortable room.
By the late 1750’s the villa at Twickenham had already become an object of pilgrimage for the fashionable world. So great was the demand to see it that he was forced to print admission tickets.
He captured the public imagination when he finally gave in and opened it for inspection. Its deliberate asymmetry was a pronounced and striking feature and it is also fitted quite nicely into the genre of the cult of the picturesque, which continued throughout the century and into the next.
He did not wish to really descend the stairs and partake of it much. And if he did, it was only on his own terms. His maxim and practice in life was ‘to laugh because I do not like to cry’
No one would perhaps be more surprised than Horry, who lived to a ripe old age, that Strawberry Hill 200 years later is still standing, because he really only built it to please himself.
In his day it was a centre for poets, writers, artists, antiquaries, politicians and society figures. And, throughout the eighteenth century it attracted curious connoisseurs and simple sightseers wishing to admire, or criticise his creation.
The nineteenth century sadly found little good to say about Horace, and his own dream of ‘addressing posterity from beyond the tomb’ seemed doubtful, until the twentieth century, when more correspondence appeared and his significant accomplishments became appreciated.
His influence on the evolution of architecture, design, form and style in England is one that cannot be ignored. He was an integral aspect of the movement that finally fueled the Gothic Revival Style of the nineteenth century.
Beloved in old age by his many nieces and nephews, Horace Walpole’s enthusiasm was infectious for those privileged to be in his circle. He responded happily to their enjoyment. It seems he was always cheerful, with a decided ‘lack of humbug’. He had a distinctive tottering gait, which was the result of re-occurring gout that many of his peers suffered from as well.
Fate placed him in the box seat, if you like, with a view out over the prospect of life, one that enabled him to carefully chronicle it so that in the future people would know a little more about the age and the society in which he lived.
“This world”, he said, “is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept, 2011, 2012
Yale University in America honours the memory of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Collection was initially developed by the Lewis Walpole Library to support research for an exhibition that was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010 and for the renovation of the house itself. This was undertaken by the Strawberry Hill Trust.
Dispersed since the famous sale of his house in 1842, Walpole’s collection was one of the most significant in eighteenth-century Britain, numbering several thousand items. At Yale the database encompasses the entire range of art and artifacts from Walpole’s collections, including all items whose location is currently known and those as yet untraced but known through a variety of historical records. This information is available for public access.