On April 25, 1842, the “sale of the century” began in Twickenham in southwest London; the contents of Strawberry Hill House were collectively viewed as “the most distinguished gem that has ever adorned the annals of auctions,” stated the sales catalog. Over the course of 24 days, more than 6,000 exquisite items went on sale from the collection of 18th-century art connoisseur Horace Walpole (1717–1797).
Walpole, the youngest son of Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, is an important figure in British art, not only as a collector but also as a man of letters. He was a key figure in the 18th-century Gothic Revival movement, compiled and edited Britain’s first book on the history of British art, and wrote the first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” based on his house at Strawberry Hill.
The 1842 sale came about due to financial difficulties by the inheritor of the estate, the seventh Earl of Waldegrave, and it meant that celebrated paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture, and curiosities were sold to collectors around the world. Works of art from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, and Sir Anthony Van Dyck; miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard, Jean Petitot, and Isaac and Peter Oliver; fine furniture, such as a Boulle cabinet; and Sèvres porcelain pieces were among those sold.
For over 175 years, items in Walpole’s remarkable collection have been scattered across the globe, hidden away from public view, with some owners of these items unaware of their objects’ prestigious Walpole provenance.
Now an exhibition, “Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill: Masterpieces From Horace Walpole’s Collection,” on until Feb. 24, 2019, brings some of Walpole’s collection back to Strawberry Hill House, including 200 newly found Walpole objects, now all arranged as he intended thanks to his detailed illustrations and documents. Among the artworks found were an antique Roman fresco and sarcophagus, and renaissance paintings and drawings.
The 200 found objects were rediscovered by Strawberry Hill House research curator Dr. Silvia Davoli, who specializes in the history of collecting, and who since 2013 has been on a worldwide search to reunite Walpole’s prestigious collection. The exhibition is a culmination of that search and that of co-curator Michael Snodin, chair of the Strawberry Hill Collection Trust.
As the exhibition goes on, so too will Davoli’s search. Here, she speaks of how she seeks out the lost works of art and has found out more about Walpole who, she said, is “considered one of the fathers of the visual arts in England.”
The Epoch Times: When conducting your research, what did you learn about Horace Walpole that you didn’t know before?
Silvia Davoli: When I started to look at Walpole, I was a little bit disorientated because he’s such an eclectic and complex figure. He was not only a collector; he was a writer, an antiquarian, and a key figure in the early Gothic Revival. But actually, it was a privilege to approach Walpole, not from his writing but from his works of art, from the collection and the dispersal of his collection, because this gave me a different perspective on him.
Walpole wanted to form narratives behind his works of art. One very famous narrative is based on the tub in the hall where Walpole’s cat drowned. The tub itself is not an exceptional work of art; it’s a blue-and-white 18th-century ceramic imported from China. But then Walpole’s cat drowned while trying to catch a goldfish, and so Walpole commissioned his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, to write an ode to the drowned cat, “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,” which eventually his friend, the artist Richard Bentley, illustrated with beautiful drawings.
I found out how every single object was linked to his ideas about the visual arts, his achievements as an art historian, and also his upbringing.
The Epoch Times: Please introduce us to Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill House.
Mrs. Davoli: In 1751, Walpole started to work on Strawberry Hill with two friends: John Chute an amateur architect, and Bentley a very gifted artist. The three were commonly known as the “committee on taste,” and together they started to work on this idea of the neo-Gothic style or Gothic Revival.
One aspect which is very important is that before Walpole, when something was neo-Gothic, it was completely invented and not based on real Gothic monuments or buildings of historical importance.
The revolution with Walpole was that he used the same “cut and paste” approach to produce a philological neo-Gothic style as designers and architects were already using to create neoclassical designs. The philological approach means to look at real ancient monuments to produce a new design, often through prints. Architects who invented the neoclassical style looked at ancient Roman monuments and Palladian villas. (Walpole had knowledge of the neoclassical approach as he helped his father in the making of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, which is a Palladian villa.) The “cut and paste” approach was to look at architectural prints and select architectural details that were eventually reused in new compositions in order to produce a neo-style. In the case of neo-Gothic, details were taken from cathedrals and reused to produce a new Gothic design. And so Chute, Walpole, and Bentley applied this approach to their neo-Gothic style. They would study original monuments, like St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, in order to produce new designs.
In this first phase of Strawberry Hill House, Walpole started to design rooms like the great parlor with the chimney, designed by Bentley, and the library that was inspired by St Paul’s Cathedral. The interiors and bookcases in particular were designed by John Chute. It was very much an experimental phase. At the time, Walpole spent a lot of money on Strawberry Hill, yet he used simple materials like wood and wallpaper in parts of the house where the great parlor, the library, and his bedchamber are located.
Then at some point, Walpole was very much influenced by the famous antiquarian George Vertue (1684–1756), who was an artist, a printmaker, and very much interested in historic portraiture. It’s clear he influenced Walpole as a collector as well as an art historian. In the Holbein Chamber, there is a set of George Vertue’s drawings after Hans Holbein. These drawings are extremely important because they are the result of Vertue’s studying Holbein and copying the portraits. I think this was a key moment for both Walpole and Vertue, when their collecting of historic portraits became really serious.
When George Vertue died, Walpole bought all the notes that Vertue had made, in order to write his book on the history of visual art in Britain, which didn’t exist at the time. From these notes, Walpole published in 1762 the book “Anecdotes of Painting in England,” which is the first history of visual art in Britain ever written.
From that moment, Walpole starts to seriously buy important works of art at auction and to think about Strawberry Hill as a public place to display his collection, a collection that also reflects his endeavors as an art historian. This is in the second phase of Strawberry Hill, around the 1760s and 1770s when Walpole uses very precious materials like stone and gold to build the so-called staterooms: the Gallery, the Round Drawing Room, and the Tribune.
Walpole spent half of his life at Strawberry Hill House putting together the collection and the house, and then the other half writing about the collection and the house. It’s as if he knew that at some point the two things would eventually be separated. And this is very interesting; it’s a way to monumentalize things, and to keep them together despite life.
The Epoch Times: What’s Strawberry Hill’s connection with the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University?
Mrs. Davoli: The connection with the Lewis Walpole Library is a historical connection. Between the two world wars, there was a man called Wilmarth S. Lewis, who started out as a bibliophile, and who was very much interested in 18th-century literature; he started to collect Walpole’s autographs. Lewis became very passionate about Walpole, and because Lewis was very rich, he was able to buy any book from the Walpole library and many autographed letters. And in fact, Lewis edited and published the 48 volumes of the “Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence,” which is a huge achievement. After World War II, Lewis was considered the main specialist on Walpole, and he was often offered works of art from the Walpole collection. When Lewis died, he gave his library and his museum to his university, Yale.
The connection to the Lewis Walpole Library is firstly that they own Walpole’s letters, poems, original records, and information about Strawberry Hill and Walpole. And secondly, from my point of view, it was very interesting to go through the Lewis records, because I found many letters from the 1950s through to the 1970s from dealers offering him works of art. And this was crucial to my research because it was yet another layer of information after the 1842 sale.
The Epoch Times: Is there anything that surprised you during your research?
Mrs. Davoli: I found a number of portraits through my research in archives like the National Portrait Gallery Archive or in photographic archives where there is a lot of documentation. And I also went through many sales catalogs. So sometimes I was able to trace back and find the current location of portraits, and the owner didn’t know about the Walpole provenance.
For instance, in the Gallery there is a very nice portrait of the second Baron of Sheffield, which is attributed to Anthony More. This portrait went through many sales and eventually ended up back with the Sheffield family. When I found it, I was surprised the owners didn’t know about the Walpole collection provenance. And, as is always the case with provenance, but especially with 18th-century provenance, it’s very difficult to know about.
It’s very advantageous for collectors to know about the Walpole collection, because it is such a prestigious provenance and can add a lot of value to works of art.
This is a nice American example: Because I’m not a specialist in antiquities, I asked the head of the department of ancient sculpture and works of art at Sotheby’s here in London to help me track down Walpole’s antiquities. I showed him many original drawings produced during the 18th century, and among these was a drawing of a piece of Roman fresco. He told me, “This is incredible! I’ve just seen this fresco two weeks ago in our office in New York.” Without the Walpole connection, the New York fresco may have been assumed to be a typical grand tour pastiche and might have been overlooked as uninteresting. It was great—I’d happened upon one of our missing treasures, and the owner now knew about the fresco’s Walpole provenance.
The Epoch Times: What are your favorite pieces in the exhibition?
Mrs. Davoli: My favorite room is the Tribune, because it really shows very well the mix between Walpole’s classical background and Gothic design. In particular, I love all these statues in bronze after the antiques, which are displaced in the Gothic niches. And the rosewood cabinet in the Tribune is astonishing. I remember the first time I saw this cabinet in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, and obviously the V&A is a gigantic museum, so a cabinet like that is one thing among many other pieces of furniture and works of art. When the cabinet was put on display in the Tribune, I was really astonished by its power, thanks to the Tribune. And then, another object I really like is the first century A.D. Roman eagle, which is one of the highlights of the exhibition. It is one of the most important works of art we were able to borrow.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill: Masterpieces from Horace Walpole’s Collection” is at Strawberry Hill House, in Twickenham, England, until Feb. 24, 2019.