Sunday, June 13, 2010

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill

Readers within striking distance of London still have about three weeks to see the exhibition Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Horace Walpole, writer, collector, letter-writer, and man of taste, bought his house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, in 1749 and rebuilt and extended it over the next 17 years. In doing so, he created one of the most influential of all English buildings, the house that kick-started the Gothic revival.

Strawberry Hill is a very special house with a very special atmosphere, built in a Gothic style that draws on a range of different sources – a chimneypiece based on a tomb in Westminster Abbey, bookcases inspired by a screen in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and so on. Its variously shaped rooms, decorated with medieval stained glass and 18th-century imitation-Gothic vaulted ceilings, are impossible to recreate in an exhibition, but the V & A designers and curators have done a good job with a sequence of irregularly sized and shaped spaces decorated in a way that evokes Walpole’s ideal combination of glom and warmth which he christened ‘gloomth’.

But what makes the exhibition memorable are the objects from Walpole’s collection. Strawberry Hill was furnished like the most precious cabinet of curiosities, but the collection was disposed of in a great sale in 1842 and its constituent items have been dispersed around the world. Many of them have been brought together again for the exhibition, and these rooms in the V & A once more give an idea of what this outsize cabinet of curiosities must have been like.

There are paintings of course (including a stunning Eworth) and books about architecture, portraiture, antique sculpture, heraldry, and even the symbols with which ‘swan-uppers’ marked the beaks of their captives. There are objects with interesting historical or artistic associations – John Dee’s mirror, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, a vase bearing the arms of the Medici. There are designs for different parts of the house – a tentative drawing of an elevation by Chute, a finely worked design for a Gothic ceiling by Robert Adam. Personal memorabilia abound, from Walpole’s wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons to the goldfish pot in which his cat (celebrated by the poet Gray as ‘Demurest of the tabby race’) was drowned.

Drawings and examples of furniture give an idea of the house as it grew, thanks to designs by Walpole’s friends Chute and Bentley, as well as Adam and Walpole himself. And there are hints of Walpole’s other achievements, such as his modestly titled Some Anecdotes of Painting in England, in fact a compendious work still used by art historians.

As for the house itself, it is currently being restored and will reopen to the public later this year. Walpole characterized the fragility of its filigree Gothic when he called it a ‘paper house’. The restoration (marked by a tantalizingly brief video in the exhibition) shows that it has actually proved rather robust. But in another way Walpole was right. It is one of the most written about of all houses, celebrated for its pioneering Gothic asymmetry, its remarkable guidebook (probably the first for a private house), its expression of its owner’s character, and its lasting influence. We’ll carry on writing about it for generations to come.

There is more about the exhibition, which continues until 4 July, here.

Strawberry Hill, interior, from Chambers Book of Days


Ron Combo said...

Your posts are always so interesting and send me off at Wiki tangents. The poor cat, Selima, drowning in a tub of Gold-fishes. Presumably glass bowls were yet to become popular. Thank you, another door opened!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Ron. I must research the history of the goldfish bowl.