Walpole: The House & the Letters

Horace Walpole’s Description of the Villa at Strawberry-Hill: A Facsimile of the Copy Extra-illustrated for Charles Bedford in the Collection of Lord Waldegrave of North Hill

with an introduction by William Waldegrave
London: Roxburghe Club (2010)
Horace Walpole’s country house, Strawberry Hill, in the nineteenth century
Horace Walpole’s country house, Strawberry Hill, in the nineteenth century

“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…

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