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 the son of England’s first prime minister, Horace knew the great world from within. He’d always been a celebrity—and he lapped it up but paid the price. To the Reverend William Mason he wrote in 1773: “…it is not pleasant to read one’s private quarrels discussed in magazines and newspapers.” Through his relations he was attached to all levels of society, except the lowest: his brother Edward, for example, lived with a milliner’s apprentice and had four children by her, one of whom, Horace’s niece Maria, married the Duke of Gloucester, brother of George III. In addition he was good to his servants, who stayed long in his service.
Walpole’s geographical horizons were broad too. As a young man he’d spent nearly three years on the grand tour through France and Italy and in later life frequently visited Paris where his Essay on Modern Gardening was particularly popular. Paris, then as now, was not ageist and Walpole never felt old there. He wrote to George Selwyn of Parisian manners: “The first step towards being in fashion is to lose an eye or a tooth… it is charming to totter into vogue.” He also made numerous rural tours through an England littered with crumbling monasteries, castles and other relics of antiquity, overgrown or pillaged for stone, returning to “Strawberry,” as he always called it, to mull over what he’d seen and perhaps publish the results on the Strawberry Hill Press. His literary production increased after he retired from parliament in 1768 and he wrote wearing green spectacles, usually in the intimacy of the Green Closet. By contrast, Strawberry’s Long Gallery, with its papier maché fan-vault and mirrored gothic canopies, was the most theatrical drawing-room of the age and used for elaborate cabarets.
But Walpole loved the beau monde too much to ever abandon London, the world’s largest and richest city. He rose at noon for breakfast before embarking on the merry round and staying late at Vauxhall or Ranelagh pleasure-gardens, where more adventurous souls could find sexual partners of any kind as the hours advanced. He always maintained a house in Mayfair, at first in Arlington Street where he was born in 1717 (behind where the Ritz is today), later in Berkeley Square where he died in 1797.
By the time of his death he had become the fourth and last earl of Orford, the title passing to him in 1791 from his father via elder brother and nephew. Ennoblement dismayed Horace. It was beyond the perimeter he had made his own. His finances up to this time had been healthy, his indulgences funded partly by family money, partly by sinecures under the Crown arranged by his father: Controller of the Pipe, Clerk of the Estreats, Usher of the Exchequer. The ancestral Walpole estate at Houghton, which now became his responsibility, had been ruined by the insane, profligate nephew, and the ornate house emptied of glory by the sale of its famous picture collection to Catherine the Great of Russia. He took it on of course but it wasn’t his style; he preferred the smaller things of life.
What of love affairs? Walpole was in his own time regarded as effeminate, not merely foppish, and in 1764 was openly attacked as an hermaphrodite. Homosexual behaviour would have been very familiar to anyone who had attended an English boarding school in the 18th century and a recent biographer presents him as the centre of a practising homosexual network. There is no specific evidence for this. His letters, casually frank as they are, make no reference to personal sexual events. But until recent times homosexuality flourished by virtue of being off the record and it’s not impossible that Walpole gave himself now and again to something or other. The only item of erotica in his library was a late but telling one, Payne Knight’s Worship of Priapus (1786). But Walpole would never have gone as far as joining the priapic Tuesday Club, for example, where group masturbation was the order of the day. Since there was no taboo against recording involvements with women we can be certain there were none and to the world at large Walpole presented himself as one of that species whose existence always amazed the Continentals: the English adult male virgin.
Sentimental attachments were another matter. Single and childless, Walpole is one of the great proponents of friendship. His friendships were cultivated with both sexes; and with men, given Walpole’s decidedly homosexual temperament, these occasionally became emotional infatuations. The earliest was with the poet Thomas Gray with whom he’d been at Eton and Cambridge. They fell out violently in Italy while on the grand tour together and the quarrel clearly involved a homosexual dispute of some kind. Towards the end of his life Walpole took up with a young neighbour, Mary Berry. In between came what has been called the Strawberry Hill set, mostly a circle of well-to-do bachelors, some of them actively heterosexual, supplemented by several women of influence or style, Lady Suffolk for example, George II’s one-time mistress, and Catherine Clive, a famous comic actress.
Walpole’s intimates were an enlightened, gossipy bunch, not exceptionally gifted, and he gave the groupings catchphrases, for they were rarely one-to-one: the Quadruple Alliance, the Committee of Taste, the Triumvirate. George Selwyn, a member of the last, was famous for being sexually aroused by public executions. John Chute, a member of the second, was an effete bachelor with superb taste who contributed to the designs of Strawberry Hill. Gray, a member of the first, was the only close friend of real distinction; he wrote an ode to Eton College which ends with his most famous lines: “…where ignorance is bliss, ’Tis folly to be wise.”
Walpole’s own reputation has fluctuated. He once received a party of French guests at Strawberry Hill wearing a pair of gigantic embroidered gauntlets which had belonged to James I and a lace cravat carved in wood by Grinling Gibbons (pictured, below). His private collection included Cardinal Wolsey’s hat and the spurs of the bisexual William III, “the most precious relics… I have seriously kissed each spur devoutly.” His medievalism was not deeply rooted; he preferred Chaucer redone by Dryden. He’d never been to Otranto; he saw it on the map and liked the sound. All this sort of thing infuriated the Victorians who were entirely guided by the opinion of Thomas Babington Macaulay—he’d written in the Edinburgh Review, 1833, that Walpole’s “mind was a bundle of inconsistent whims and affectations.” No matter that Byron had referred to Walpole’s “incomparable letters,” or that Walter Scott had called him “the best letter-writer in the English language.”
Macaulay’s dismissive attitude persisted. Even Wilde makes no mention of Horace Walpole, though 1890s dandyism prepared the way for Walpole’s rehabilitation, which was conducted (again in the Edinburgh Review, 80 years after Macaulay) by Lytton Strachey. Strachey still harboured reservations and to Ottoline Morrell he wrote spitefully of Horace that “a more callous fiend never stepped the earth.” It was the unlikely figure of Arnold Bennett who noted that Walpole’s character often appeared “really noble and distinguished.”
Clarity and lightness are what one values in Walpole. Behind even his most robust or skittish observations there is something lyrical, personal, lonely, which touches us. In terms of context, he fits well into the rococo or dandy tradition of English literature which is characterised by stylish intimacy, by metropolitan urbanity infused with airy Arcadian fancies and personal daring. One might trace this tradition from the sonnets of Shakespeare (called by Walpole “the first of writers”), through Aubrey, Rochester and Congreve, and from Horace Walpole to his emulator William Beckford. Its savour arises in the novels of Peacock; and though Oscar Wilde was a baroque figure, The Importance of Being Earnest is a rococo masterpiece whose offspring include Max Beerbohm, Saki and Ronald Firbank. The rococo spirit added a brilliant vitality to the modern movement in English literature with the work of the Sitwells, the early novels of Evelyn Waugh and Christopher Isherwood, Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, several crafted books of personal exploration by Norman Douglas and Sybille Bedford, the jeux d’esprit of Nancy Mitford and Osbert Lancaster, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers (unfinished though it was).
Walpole, who would have relished all these writers, has also been called the Proust of 18th-century England. Less analytical than Proust, he is just as effective in portraying the doings of an entire milieu and is far more informative, while his sensitive, mischievous personality is both endearing and timeless. Kenneth Clark argued that Romanticism originated in the conscious harnessing of fear which he dates from the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and the appearance of The Castle of Otranto soon after. Bonamy Dobrée, hardly less ambitiously, has described the author of Otranto as “perhaps the first surrealist writer.” Walpole, who confessed that the novel was inspired by a nightmare, would never have claimed so much for himself. He prized above all what he referred to as his “nothinghood.” But there is in his endeavours a magical defiance which implies that earthly delight must and can survive anything which life throws at it. This is the tragi-comic sensibility of rococo.
As for Strawberry Hill, it has never wanted for attention—recently it provided several interiors for François Ozon’s luxurious film Angel—but it has wanted for care. It was inherited by Anne Damer, a well-known lesbian and the only child of Walpole’s beloved but boorish cousin, Henry Conway. From her it passed through several more families before being bought by the Roman Catholic church which sold off land for housing development, blocking the river views for ever. Its restoration as a public attraction could not be more fitting. Walpole, a man of so many inadvertent firsts, not only issued tickets of admission but also produced the first ever illustrated house-guide.
This is an adapted version of Duncan Fallowell’s essay “The Letters of Horace Walpole,” from “Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read,” edited by Richard Canning (Alyson Books, £10.99)