Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill

March 18, 2010

This sumptuously illustrated volume of essays is a successful attempt to evoke the complex plan of a unique house with the glitter of its historic contents. Each of its 16 essays breaks off for sudden two-page inserts that focus on the particular subjects of the text. It is as if, by turning a page, the reader had opened a closet door in one of Strawberry Hill's dark Gothic passages and then reeled back from the jewel-bright glare of the contents within. The effect is infinitely more satisfying than an actual visit to the house itself because the original contents, scattered across two continents, have been gathered together here in a definitive catalogue raisonne. In addition, a chronological colour-coded plan of Strawberry's three complex floors makes sense of its episodic construction by two gay bachelors - John Chute and Walpole - with help from a controlling and brilliant artist and draughtsman, Richard Bentley. His ink-wash and graphite sketches, which combine rococo charm with medieval authenticity, record the creation of a picturesque building that had a devastating impact upon the contemporary, smug classical vernacular. Strawberry Hill offered a seductive rococo-Gothic alternative to rule-bound neo-Palladianism.

The book is, therefore, a desirable artistic investment, but with one reservation. Its editor, Michael Snodin, seems so embarrassed by Walpole's deviant sexual identity that, in his commissioning role, he has managed to airbrush out almost all accounts of Walpole's wildly romantic love life, even though they would have explained both the inspiration behind the house and his choice of its contents.

For example, Eleanor Hughes' insert on Walpole's Grand Tour evades its two key episodes: Walpole's ruthless jilting at Reggio of Thomas Gray, England's earliest Romantic poet, and Walpole's subsequent gay honeymoon with Henry Fiennes Clinton, 9th Earl of Lincoln, whom George II described as "the handsomest man in England". Lincoln was the nephew and ward of the Pelham brothers, who earned Walpole's lifelong enmity by separating them and hastily marrying Lincoln off to a cousin. Traumatised by this moral snub, Walpole took refuge in the creation of Strawberry Hill and in the company of gay friends. Yet Hughes devotes her insert to an earnest debate on whether a Madonna and Child, which Walpole mentions in Bologna, was a Domenichino or a Sassoferrato copy of a Mignard engraving. To an editor from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the provenance of one dull painting is, it would appear, more important than two human emotional crises that produced the subject of the volume.

It takes a professor of English, George Haggerty, to explain that "Walpole and his friends used Strawberry Hill as a way of coming out of their respective privacies". The other essays on ceramics, miniatures, Lady Diana Beauclerk's soot paintings and the Strawberry Hill Sale of 1842 are all cautiously scholarly, especially one by Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, which includes the unreflecting mirror that Elizabethan mathematician and alchemist John Dee used to invoke the Devil.

But we would have understood Walpole's rebel circle better if Bentley's hilariously scatological drawings of rude games on the playing fields of Eton had been illustrated. They were commissioned by the Strawberry Hill Press for the Odes of Thomas Gray, an apology for Walpole's treacherous cruelty in Reggio: that one risque book made Gray famous. It was Walpole's defiant gesture, like his house and its collections, against a humourless and unimaginative Establishment.

Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill

Edited by Michael Snodin. Yale University Press, 356pp, £40.00. ISBN 9780300125740. Published 12 December 2009

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