“It is a little play-thing-house,” Horace Walpole wrote to Henry Seymour Conway in June 1747, “and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw. It is set in enamelled meadows, with filigree hedges.” Six years later he was able to tell his friend Sir Horace Mann, the lifelong British resident in Florence, that he was sending him a drawing of the “enchanted little landscape [that] is Strawberry Hill,” before rhapsodizing about “the open grove” and the lovely vista over fields and woodlands to Twickenham church and Richmond Hill, on a stretch of the Thames where other eminent persons, from Alexander Pope to elderly ladies of title, had summer homes.
At the time he acquired this piece of land with an old tumbledown building, Horatio or Horace Walpole was twenty-nine, rich, clever, gifted, indolent. Born in 1717, he was the youngest son of that brilliant brute Sir Robert Walpole, and a little boy in 1721 when his father took power as, by the usual reckoning, the first prime minister of Great Britain. Sir Robert held that position until 1742, making him not only our first but to this day our longest-serving premier, not to say the first and perhaps the last to leave office flagrantly richer than he entered it.1 In those two decades, shrugging aside his many enemies as well as the satire of The Beggar’s Opera, he secured the Whig oligarchy that held power through most of the eighteenth century, and under which the Hanoverian dynasty and the Protestant Succession were in turn consolidated, in the interests of liberty and property.
For years Horace was himself a member of Parliament, but he isn’t remembered for his public life. Nor is he quite remembered as a “creative writer,” although he wrote copiously, began the first private press at Strawberry Hill, and published in his lifetime among other things his Memoirs of the Reign of King George II, as well as a then-unfashionable defense of Richard III, A Description of the Villa at Strawberry-Hill, and, in 1764, The Castle of Otranto. This was the first Gothic novel, and is still sometimes read, even if it’s pretty good hokum (“‘I charge you not to stir,’ said Matilda. ‘If they are spirits in pain, we may ease their sufferings by questioning them….’ ‘Oh! dear lady, I would not speak to a ghost for the world!’ cried Bianca”), although with its huge magic helmet falling from the sky and bleeding statue, it would make a marvelous movie for a certain kind of director (indeed an animated version exists, from 1977, by the Czech director Jan Švankmajer).
Much more of the real Walpole was poured into his letters, and into Strawberry Hill, whose design, building, and decoration he supervised. Last year’s reopening of the house after many vicissitudes, long neglect, and decay was a cause for celebration, though it’s more exactly a re-reopening. By 2003 its problems had become so severe that it was listed by the World Heritage Fund as one of the world’s hundred most endangered sites. But a scheme to restore it was undertaken by the architect Peter Inskip and the builders E. Bowman and Sons, thanks to a £9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Five years ago the ground floor was opened, and now, the task completed, the upper floors are open as well.
In Walpole’s day the twelve miles from the epicenter of his London life in Saint James’s Square to Strawberry Hill was a two-hour carriage journey; today the train takes you from Waterloo to Strawberry Hill station rather quicker. Although Strawberry Hill is not a great building in the sense of Salisbury Cathedral or Castle Howard, it is a most fascinating and curious place, “a house which invites the visitor to play detective,” as Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi put it in Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle.
We enter through the hall and climb the staircase, designed by Walpole’s friend Richard Bentley after the library staircase at Rouen Cathedral, which is likewise echoed by the screen in the Holbein Chamber. Maybe the two finest rooms are the library, with its bookcases of pointed arches, and the Great Parlour, whose chimneypiece is another splendid bit of Gothickry. All in all, the house is a conscious exercise in antiquarianism and medievalism, with much parade of the armorial bearings and other relics of what Walpole believed to be his illustrious forebears, as well as a display of quaintness, in reaction to Augustan formality and symmetry, and in anticipation of the Gothic revival that was to follow.
Quite quickly, Strawberry Hill was followed by other buildings that showed its influence, such as Donnington Grove in Berkshire. By the time Walpole saw Lee Priory in 1790, when the house in Kent had been rebuilt for his friend Thomas Barrett by James Wyatt, the imprint was so clear that he said, “I think, if Strawberry were not its parent, I would be jealous.” And within another generation, Augustus Pugin and his successors would be covering England and Ireland with churches, not to mention the Houses of Parliament, in high Gothic style.2
With a fanciful love of wordplay, Walpole used what he claimed was the Chinese word sharawaggi for the “want of symmetry” he intended in the design of Strawberry Hill, and the inspissated atmosphere he’d tried to create within he called “gloomth.” Those two didn’t quite catch on, but another Walpoleism did. He took “serendipity” from the fairy story “The Three Princes of Serendip,” and serendipitous was the place he created at Strawberry Hill, a Schatzkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities,” with every wall covered in the lovely and unlikely things he had collected.
In his time and later, Walpole divided opinion. Macaulay famously, and predictably, derided him not only as a trivial spinsterish fop but as a duplicitous hypocrite, while more recently J.H. Plumb sniffed that “he can never be more than a minor figure and a minor source.” And yet the cultural historian Marion Harney, in her Place-making for the Imagination: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, calls Strawberry Hill “a unique, original and rule-breaking vision of passion and imagination,” while Leslie Stephen went further when he said that “the history of England, throughout a very large segment of the eighteenth century, is simply a synonym for the works of Horace Walpole.”
Even if he wasn’t a great statesman or a great artist, the man himself was a wonderful invention, expressed through the true memorials that are his correspondence and Strawberry Hill. But whereas the first has been superbly preserved, the other is a melancholy story, and to recall the house now as Walpole made it requires our own imagination.
Horace grew up largely in London and in Chelsea (then outside London) with his mother, while his father was in Norfolk with his mistress. The Walpoles had been modest squires, with a modest home to match, but Sir Robert used the riches he acquired by way of office to rebuild Houghton Hall in Norfolk as a palatial country house, designed in the Palladian style by Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, and to fill it with fine Italian paintings. Horace was educated at Eton (from the age of nine), where his closest friends were the poet Thomas Gray and the clergyman Thomas Ashton as well as his cousin the statesman Henry Seymour Conway, and at King’s College, Cambridge.
He then set off on the grand tour, accompanied by Gray, and fortified by the appointments his father had acquired for him when he turned twenty-one. In that age of baroque pilferage of public funds, Horace held the lifelong sinecures of usher of the exchequer, comptroller of the pipe, and clerk of the estreats. One may understand why a much later prime minister felt distaste for “English political and public life under the first three Georges,” as Sir Winston Churchill put it, “corruption, complacency, iron class rule, Tory follies and Whig caste prejudices and intrigues,” although Churchill could scarcely have forgotten that his own family had done well enough out of corruption and intrigue.
In Florence, Walpole befriended Mann, with whom he would correspond for more than forty-five years although they never met again, and also Elisabetta Capponi, wife of the Marchese Grifoni, with whom he might have enjoyed a liaison, but probably didn’t. There was long speculation about the unmarried Walpole’s sexual life, if any. He and his friends were seen by some of his contemporaries as effeminate; the intensity of his friendship with Gray, interrupted by what might seem lovers’ tiffs, does have a homoerotic flavor; and any Walpolean must admit that Horace was delightfully camp. But the truth is we don’t know more than that.
Back home, Horace inevitably entered Parliament, sitting for a succession of pocket boroughs, first Callington in Cornwall, which was in the pocket of some kinsmen and where he seems never to have set foot, and then Castle Rising and King’s Lynn, two Norfolk seats in the family interest, although the last did have a larger electorate and Walpole enjoyed the rumbustious hustings. In 1742 he witnessed at close quarters the great drama of his father’s downfall, and then played a very minor part in “the Prince of Wales’s party,” the opposition faction to George II and his ministers.
Then its leader, Frederick, Prince of Wales, predeceased his father, who was succeeded by George III, Frederick’s son. Walpole lived on through the American and French revolutions, dying in 1797 in his eightieth year. All the while he was writing letters and more letters, and he was completing Strawberry Hill. His reputation depends partly on those letters as well as on his remarkable house.
Before he died, the disasters had begun. Sir Robert had been made Earl of Orford when he left office and, on his death in 1745, Houghton and the title passed to his eldest son, who died in 1751 and was succeeded by his own surviving son. But the lavish official incomes on which the Walpole fortune had been established had lapsed, while the spendthrift and addle-brained third earl, George Walpole, wasted away what inheritance there was.
When George died in 1791, Horace became fourth and last Earl of Orford for the brief remainder of his life, but he had already been heartbroken in 1779, when his nephew sold the splendid Houghton picture collection to Catherine the Great. “It is the most signal mortification to my idolatry for my father’s memory, that it could receive,” he wrote to Lady Upper Ossory, one of his most faithful correspondents. “A madman excited by rascals has burnt his Ephesus. I must never cast a thought towards Norfolk more—nor will hear my nephew’s name, if I can avoid it.”
Houghton is now the home of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, whose forebear the first marquess was the grandson of Sir Robert’s daughter Mary. Two years ago the madman’s dissipated legacy returned temporarily, when many paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Poussin, Rubens, and Velázquez, were lent by the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where they now reside, to be seen again at Houghton. That “Houghton Revisited” exhibition only left a visitor with a sense of where the pictures could still live.
And what should live at Strawberry Hill? The story grows darker. In a watercolor of the Great Parlour in Walpole’s last years we see hanging Sir Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait The Ladies Waldegrave, now in Edinburgh. Through complicated kinship, the house passed to the Waldegrave family, “respectable, second-rank aristocrats with a good record, it must have seemed, of negotiating the hazards of English life throughout a good many dangerous centuries,” in the ironical words of William Waldegrave.
Now Lord Waldegrave of West Hill and provost of Eton following his involuntary retirement from politics, he’s the younger son of the twelfth Earl Waldegrave. After a prize-winning career at Eton and Oxford, ending in a fellowship of All Souls and a Kennedy Scholarship, and perhaps burdened with hopes (“we had expected you to be/The next prime minister but three…”), Waldegrave duly entered Parliament in 1979. He “was Margaret Thatcher’s last Cabinet appointment; she fell less than a month later,” as he characteristically writes, and in 1997 he became “the first Conservative MP to lose Bristol West since the Second Reform Bill.”
Out of politics, he has played some part in the recovery of Strawberry Hill, and he has recently published two relevant books, A Different Kind of Weather, an agreeable if somewhat Eeyorish memoir, and the fascinating introduction he writes to Walpole’s Description of the Villa at Strawberry-Hill, printed in superb facsimile of a copy he owns, which was extra-illustrated for Charles Bedford. This was Waldegrave’s customary gift-offering as a member of the Roxburghe Club, the oldest and most patrician of bibliophiles’ societies, which was founded after the sale of the Duke of Roxburghe’s library in 1812, and whose select list of members even now starts with three dukes and two marquesses.
Maybe that book was a kind of penance, after the lamentable family story he relates. The Waldegrave inheritors of Strawberry Hill were undone by “Gambling. Lawsuits over legitimacy. Prison. A menage à trois between two dissolute Waldegrave brothers and a young adventuress.” The ending came in 1842 when one of the greatest—if saddest—sales ever held dispersed Walpole’s unique collection far and wide.
By the early twentieth century, Strawberry Hill’s fortunes had fallen very low. After World War I, the building was acquired as a Roman Catholic teaching college, while the land down to the river was sold and “developed,” so that Walpole’s house is now surrounded not by enameled meadows and filigree hedges but by suburban houses. And for all the splendid effort put into its restoration, the pretty bauble itself is a bare ruined choir. Thinking of two of my favorite places in London, Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, one can imagine a cross between the two: that’s what Strawberry Hill should be like, halfway between the personal idiosyncracy of Soane and the sheer beauty of Wallace. Instead it is a poignant toy box emptied of its toys.
Over the years from quite soon after his death, Walpole’s letters were published in batches, often with faulty texts. He might have minded the faults, but not publication. His correspondence was a conscious performance, with carefully chosen correspondents, from Gray and Mann to the Reverend William Cole, a cantankerous Tory clergyman and antiquary, and the aging Madame du Deffand, a friend of Voltaire and once the mistress (or so Walpole told Gray) of the Duc d’Orléans, regent for the infant Louis XV.
So deliberately were Walpole’s letters composed as a record of events that he asked Mann to return his letters for a while so that he could use them as the basis for his Reign of King George II. And yet Walpole defied the saying that letters written for posterity never arrive. To this day, his letters are lively, observant, sometimes malicious or on occasion bitchy, and always readable. No wonder Robert Lowell said that he read the letters for literary pleasure.
He may not have prospered politically, but what an eye Walpole has for politics! “They say the Prince [of Wales] has taken up two hundred thousand pounds, to carry elections which he won’t carry,” he tells Henry Seymour Conway on June 8, 1747; “he had much better had saved it to buy the Parliament after it is chosen,” which seems good advice for any billionaire dealing with Congress today. In 1761 the brave seventeen-year-old Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz arrived to marry King George III:
When she saw [St James’s] palace she turned pale: the Duchess of Hamilton smiled—“My dear Duchess,” said the princess, “you may laugh—you have been married twice; but it is no joke to me.”
And Walpole is provocatively interesting even when we may think him quite wrong, as in his contempt for Samuel Johnson and his “teeth-breaking diction.”
We know this thanks to a figure scarcely less remarkable in his own way than Walpole, Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (1895–1979), known all his life as “Lefty” (the silly nickname conferred on him as a freshman at Yale because he so little resembled a gangster known as Lefty), and to a career that is almost unimaginable today. Lewis was a cultivated, urbane, obsessive, and very rich amateur scholar, originally from California, where his father had made one fortune in oil and his mother’s father another by way of 80,000 cattle-grazing acres. Lefty’s formal eduction ended with a modest BA, Class of 1918, interrupted by brief military training.
After the Armistice he began traveling to England every year, and collecting. And collecting, and collecting. He described his own obsession for collecting anything, from houseflies to stamps as a little boy until he moved on to coins and butterflies, and then books and manuscripts. He learned “more about books than I had learned in school and college,” and in 1923, at a bookshop in York, he bought “the book that is the foundation of my library,” the four volumes of John Heneage Jesse’s 1843 George Selwyn and His Contemporaries, and found—serendipitously indeed—in a pocket inside the cover “thirty-two pages of manuscript comment on the letters by Lady Louisa Stuart, a lady as unknown to me then as were Jesse and Selwyn themselves.”
Although Louisa Stuart knew Walpole, like not a few others she had mixed feelings about “my old ill-natured friend.” For Lewis, Walpole was soon his new dearest friend. He began to buy original manuscripts of the letters, as well as anything else connected with Walpole and his circle, and became convinced that a proper edition of the letters was needed. He and his wife, Annie Burr Auchincloss, a Standard Oil heiress, turned their handsome house at Farmington, thirty miles north of New Haven, into a great library and repository that, by the time he was fifty, contained more than 25,000 books, pamphlets, and manuscripts, and continually expanded thereafter.
Determined to see Walpole’s correspondence gathered in a scholarly edition, Lewis persuaded Yale University Press to publish it, while he supervised and, as much to the point, financed this gargantuan project. The first volumes of The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence appeared in 1937; more than forty years later, having spent countless millions on housing and paying a team of scholarly editors, Lewis died in 1979 aged eighty-four, after seeing some of the last of the work in galley proof but before publication concluded in 1983 with the last volume of the complete index, the forty-eighth volume in all.
This magnificent and slightly mad enterprise has inevitably been faulted by captious critics, for Lewis’s decision to publish the letters not chronologically but by correspondent, beginning with William Cole and Mme du Deffand, and for its editorial technique. This is indeed a veritable blitzkrieg of scholarship, with immensely detailed footnotes, but Lewis made no apology for that: it was part of the purpose of the edition to illuminate the entire age, by telling us as much as possible about everybody and everything mentioned, and when all is said it is one of the triumphs of Lewis’s own age.
Writing about Ruskin, my late friend John Gross observed that the Library Edition of his complete works was published more than a hundred years ago in thirty-nine huge volumes, and wondered drily whether there were thirty-nine people alive today who had read the whole thing. Maybe there are more than forty-eight people who have read the entire Correspondence, if perhaps not many more, but then Lewis recognized that, and said that the edition was meant to be consulted rather then read through.
Anyone who wants to start on Walpole should look at the Selected Letters Lewis published in 1973, and then move to the complete Yale Edition, which has now happily been put online, in which form, it must be said even by those of us who love books as objects, it is easier to search, browse, and move hither and yon.
We know what the interior of Strawberry Hill ought to look like, from Walpole’s own Description, which can be read in Waldegrave’s luxurious Roxburghe Club volume or in a more affordable facsimile just published by Pallas Athene in London; in contemporary sketches; and most of all from the wonderful exhibition “Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill” which was seen in 2009–2010 at the Yale Center for British Art and then the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and is commemorated in the beautiful book of the same name edited by Michael Snodin.
At Strawberry Hill, grand portraits alternated with suits of armor, a thirteenth-century chasse, or casket, in enameled copper depicting the murder of Thomas Becket with endless delightful miniatures. Walpole did not have as many old masters as his father, but he formed a matchless collection of ceramics as well as miniatures.
A visitor to the 2009 show, or a reader of Snodin’s book, will see from the provenance or ownership that the erstwhile contents of Strawberry Hill are now scattered from Lancashire to Toledo, Eisenach to Edinburgh. And yet a very high proportion of the items are in Connecticut, some at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, but more at the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, from an ebony cabinet inlaid with semiprecious stones to Mme du Deffand’s manuscript letters to a Sèvres cup and saucer.
Here the plots thickens. When William Waldegrave was at Harvard in 1970, he visited Lewis, who was most hospitable, “as well he might he been, given that he had persuaded my father to surrender much more of our family’s Walpoliana that he should have done to the Farmington collection.”
In his introduction to the Description, he also mentions this and the semiaffectionate but unsparing reminiscence of Lewis by Mary, Countess Waldegrave, William’s mother, which appeared in the Book Collector, the bibliophiles’ quarterly journal. From her description, Lefty seems like some character worthy of Henry James, descending on one English country house after another where his almost extrasensory perception had located Walpole relics; he was affable, charming, with ready money for old but needy families, and utterly ruthless, one of those in whom the acutely developed collecting instinct verges on kleptomania. Lady Waldegrave went so far as to use the word “banditry” about Lewis’s methods, not entirely humorously. She described the point at which
Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis and the Waldegraves, along with many another owner, were set on a collision course. Not only at Chewton but all over the world, relics of Strawberry Hill and its owner, though they did not yet know it, were on their way to Farmington.
And that is where they remain. They will never be restored to Strawberry Hill, where there are plans to find replicas of the originals, but even that can’t get very far.
For all the loving care that has been lavished by those who have saved the house and now care for it, the subversive thought even occurs that what was done to St. Mary Aldermanbury might be done to Strawberry Hill. One of the fifty wonderful churches designed for the City of London by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, so many of which were shamefully abandoned by the Church of England even before the attentions of the Luftwaffe, St. Mary’s was bombed out in 1940. Then, more than a quarter-century later, it was removed stone by stone and rebuilt in Fulton, Missouri, as part of the process by which the once little-known Westminster College, where Winston Churchill, almost by chance, had given his “iron curtain” speech in 1946, became one of the great shrines of the Churchill cult. There today St. Mary’s stands, gleaming and spotless.
Could Strawberry Hill be moved bodily to Connecticut? The idea seems frivolous or far-fetched, but the fact is that in no other way will the house be reunited with much of the contents that Walpole so lovingly assembled. Buying his first books “brought Walpole back to life” for Lefty Lewis. How can Walpole’s legacy—and Lewis’s—best be brought back to life for us?
David Lloyd George has since been called the prime minister of whom this was true, and been compared with Tony Blair in that respect, but both Lloyd George and Blair strictly speaking made their fortunes after leaving Downing Street, though obviously as a consequence of their political careers. ↩