Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill uncovered in Victoria and Albert Museum exposé

By Celia White | 19 March 2010
A picture of a painting of the inside of an ancient library

(Above) Edward Edwards, The Library at Strawberry Hill (circa 1781). © courtesy The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Exhibition: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until July 4 2010

The first historian of English art, Horace Walpole, and his famous collection of objects is the focus of a stimulating exhibition showing at the V and A this spring, bringing more than 250 objects collected by Walpole throughout his lifetime together while extensive renovations are made to Strawberry Hill, their original Twickenham home.

Walpole was renowned among the 18th-century cultural elite as a novelist, historian, collector, publisher, social commentator and man of letters. Strawberry Hill was built as a summer villa by Walpole between 1747 and 1790 in a masterpiece of Georgian Gothic, reflecting the fashion for medieval architecture and decoration at the time.

A photo of an ornate 18th century coffer on four legs with gilded patterns all over it

Coffer on Stand (circa 1710). Attributed to Andre-Charles Boulle. © courtesy The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Perhaps more significant is the art collection that it housed. This exhibition recreates, room-by-room, Walpole's highly personal display of his diverse collection of paintings, sculptures, portrait miniatures, ceramics, armour and furniture.

Although a private residence, Strawberry Hill was open to the public in Walpole's time, and its collections attracted visitors from far and wide.

Tours of the house were given, and to assist these Walpole wrote a descriptive catalogue of all of the objects on show, which the curators here have used to excellent effect, printing Walpole's entries alongside their own label descriptions.

A picture of an oil painting of a middle aged man from the 18th century

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Horace Walpole (circa 1756-7). Oil on canvas. © Marquess of Hertford, Ragley Hall Warwickshire

This juxtaposition reveals the factual embellishments that Walpole's descriptions lent the objects, highlighting the importance of the collection to Walpole's cultural power.

The first two rooms in the exhibition are devoted to the design and construction of Strawberry Hill and the influential guests Walpole entertained there.

These are followed by displays of the objects shown in each part of the house, with the exhibition rooms decorated to reflect each type of domestic space.

A photo of an ornate vase in a myriad of yellow and dark blue dots

Vase with arms and ring device of the Medici (circa 1465-80). © The Trustees of the British Museum

Among the most beautiful pieces on show is Léonard Limousin's Hunting Horn (1538). Displayed in the Library, this delicate ornamental horn is intricately enamelled with biblical and Roman scenes.

Richard Bentley's Gothic Lantern of 1755 is another highlight; displayed close to the ceiling with light shining through its stained glass, it evokes the haunting medieval gloom of the main hall in which it was hung.

The most famous room in the house is the so-called Holbein Chamber, where Walpole displayed portrait drawings by Hans Holbein which had once been owned by Henry VIII's court, whose style is reflected in the lavish decoration.

A picture of a painting of the inside of a hall inside an 18th century house

John Carter, View from the Hall at Strawberry Hill (1788). © courtesy The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

In another section of the display the Gallery is recreated, its large-scale paintings shown alongside the original ornamental benches and lacquered commodes.

The curatorial notes that Walpole recorded in his writings indicate his interest in the aesthetic interplay of artworks in a gallery space: "In hanging pictures, opposition makes harmony. Histories should be mixed with Landscapes or Heads; and the two latter should be mixed."

The significance of this exhibition lies in the continuation it suggests between 18th and 21st-century curiosity about objects: their ownership and display, their visual consumption and comprehension.

Like the V and A show and many modern exhibitions, the Strawberry Hill collection employed an austere and beautiful building, a curator’s attention to the details of each object, ticketed entry, the paper catalogue, and the guided tour.

This show, therefore, is a museum of the museum, an exhibition about exhibiting. By drawing parallels between the modern museum and Walpole’s curatorial practice, it reveals the many ways in which the museums of our own time reflect the ongoing legacy of Enlightenment collection and display.

Admission £5-£7.40. Visit the show online for booking details.

Visit the exhibition programme for full listings of events accompanying the show.

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