A celebrity of the 18th century, Horace Walpole divided polite society. Now the re-opening of his home and a show at the V&A will restore his reputation, says Duncan Fallowellby Duncan Fallowell / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
A touch of paganism in the boudoir: an ornate gallery designed by Thomas Pitt between 1759 and 1762 at Strawberry Hill
At the end of 1764 literature’s first horror story, The Castle of Otranto, was published in London under disguise. It was an immediate success, despite its fatuousness, and has never since been out of print. It didn’t take long before its author was obliged bashfully to step forward: Horace Walpole, man of fashion, antiquarian, member of the House of Commons, unwavering bachelor and youngest of the five children of Sir Robert Walpole.
Otranto established a genre, the gothic novel, but Horace Walpole had long been delving into spiky realms. In 1747 he had acquired a property outside London overlooking the Thames at Twickenham, a spot already renowned for Pope’s villa. Walpole proceeded to turn a plain little house into a glamorous sham castle, pretty vaults within, battlements without. He named it Strawberry Hill, installed his eccentric collections, and it became one of the sights of Europe, initiating the Georgian phase (known as gothick) of the gothic revival.
This summer, another revival will finally be completed as—after a 250-year interruption—a restored Strawberry Hill is opened up as an attraction for the public, as it was when Walpole lived there. The opening is preceded by an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum from 6th March, devoted to “Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill” and promising to re-create for the first time since the 18th century his pioneering collection of art.
Gothic had never died out entirely in Britain but the adoption of its churchy flourishes as a style for the home was quite new. In the 19th century it would again be associated with spiritual uplift but Walpole wasn’t at all religious—the Chapel at Strawberry Hill was a garden folly where he interred his pets (he loved animals, dogs particularly). He invented the word “gloomth,” combining ‘“gloomy” and “warmth,” to describe the effect he was after; and the taste for witchy gothick, like that for chinoiserie, was a characteristically English response to the domestication of baroque which is called rococo. The baroque was public and religious; the rococo was paganism in the boudoir.
Walpole’s other achievement, his correspondence, some would say was his greatest, since it is in the correspondence that all his aspects are incorporated. The man had plenty to write about. Eighteenth-century politics ran on social connections and, as…