The large number of paintings Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, assembled for his family home at Houghton Hall in Norfolk formed one of the eighteenth century’s most exceptional collections. Rebuilt during the 1720s with work continuing into the 1730s, Houghton Hall required the original house to be demolished and the village of Houghton to be moved (!) to accommodate the new park. The rebuilt Hall was vast in order to accommodate all large-scale paintings and tapestries. The core of the collection included works by Dutch, Flemish and French masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Murillo and Lorrain. Walpole also commissioned many works from living artists. Busy with political affairs of state, he employed specialists to purchase works of art on his behalf and make recommendations. Members of the Walpole family (his sons Robert, Edward and Horace, or his brother Horatio) travelled on the Continent where they bought for Sir Robert. The organisation of the collection at Houghton Hall was left to his youngest son Horace who wrote a catalogue of his father’s collection entitled Aedes Walpolianae (1747/8) in which he supplied a detailed and scholarly description of the collection which became a model for cataloguing country house collections for the remainder of the century.
When Robert died in 1745, his considerable debts were passed on to his eldest son Robert who set about raising capital through the sale of some 130 paintings from their London properties. The proceeds did not come near to settling the debts. Robert only survived his father by six years. The estate – along with its debts – passed to his only son George who was a wayward character. He used Houghton for wild parties and mixed with unsavoury characters. He then suffered a dramatic mental illness and made various suicide attempts. The house fell into disrepair and it was left to Horace to impose a degree of order on to the household. Once recovered, George decided to sell the entire Houghton Collection. The possibility of a private sale caused outrage. The collection was considered to be a perfect foundation for the establishment of a national gallery which, at the time, was very much an undertaking of national pride. After all, London had to compete with the success of the Louvre in Paris.
The loss of 204 outstanding works to the flamboyant Catherine the Great of Russia was a blow to morale and interpreted as a sign of British decline. Horace despaired in private at the prospect at his father’s legacy being destroyed. In the battle of words even some of the more outrageous contemporary rumours of Catherine’s sexual appetite were used to define her as an undeserving recipient of England’s finest collection. Ironically, in 1789, ten years after the collection arrived in Russia, the north wing of Houghton Hall was destroyed by fire. The collection at least was saved for future generations to enjoy.
Horace Walpole was a man of many talents. He was an author, bibliographer, publisher, collector, and a very odd character. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he became MP for Callington (Cornwall) in 1743, held the seat for thirteen years, but never set foot in the place. A confirmed bachelor, he drew about him a circle of cultured ‘dear friends’, a semi-erotic camaraderie of sensitive aesthetes. His biographers have described Walpole as an effeminate, asexual, or passively homosexual character. Horace Walpole does not quite fit the eighteenth century mould, being more akin to Max Beerbohm’s and Oscar Wilde’s late nineteenth century style. Horace was a decadent, given to dramatic and aesthetic indulgence – an eighteenth century Oscar Wilde, a prototype for Huysmans’s fictional hero Des Esseintes. As an author, he is remembered for his extensive correspondence which is of significant historical interest. He was a prodigious writer of letters, corresponding with many outstanding cultural and political figures of his time. His fame rests upon the novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, of which melodrama and parody were to become long-standing features of the style initiated by him. Published anonymously, the first edition of 500 copies sold out quickly. The world was moving on, but fiction turned to the past. The castle of Otranto is riddled with dark vaults, subterranean passages, trap-doors, caverns and ghosts. The novel was published on Christmas Eve in 1764. That same year James Watt perfected the steam engine, thus laying the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. Literature dripped of medieval blood, while London and the big industrial cities were about to be covered in grease and oil. The gap between fiction and life was widening. Literature became divorced from reality. Escape was the name of the game.
In 1747, Walpole leased a small suburban house in fashionable Twickenham, south-west of London. Built in 1698, it was called ‘Strawberry Hill’ after the area of land on which it stood, known as Strawberry Hill Shot, and in its time had been occupied by the actor and dramatist Colley Cibber. Walpole set about transforming and extending the dwelling into a Gothic castle. He wanted the house to look like a medieval manor, without sacrificing any modern luxuries or refinements. The house became an odd mixture of papier-mâché friezes, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, a Holbein chamber evoking the court of Henry VIII, traditional Dutch tiles on the floor, contemporary carpets throughout and modern paintings on the walls. Strawberry Hill was built for theatrical effect. The house was a stage set on which Walpole performed his life. To some, it was the manifestation of a gay aesthetic. Strawberry Hill was the most famous house in Georgian England. It fuelled the vogue for all things medieval. For Victorian Gothic purists such as Augustus Pugin, it was a sham. For modernists, it indicated the failure of the age to build anything of stylistic significance.
Strawberry Hill was filled with art, antiquities and curiosities of every period from the ancient to the modern. Walpole wrote and printed his own catalogue, A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole in 1774, which he revised and enlarged in 1784. His collection of miniatures which included works by Holbein, Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, was one of the finest anywhere and his ceramic collection (over 1,200 pieces) ranged from ancient Greek pots to contemporary porcelain. Not all of the collection was of artistic merit, but Walpole delighted in his eclectic array of objects of historical curiosity from a pair of gloves belonging to James I to the spurs worn by King William in the Battle of the Boyne, and a lock of hair of Edward IV. In the Great Sale held in 1842, described by many observers as the sale of the century, Walpole’s collections were dispersed world-wide. The auction lasted thirty days.
To bibliophiles Walpole is the person who started the first successful private press. The term ‘Private Press’ refers to a movement in book production which flourished at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It started with the founding of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1890. Those involved created books by traditional printing and binding methods, with an emphasis on the book as a work of art and manual skill, as well as a medium for the transmission of information. Morris studied incunabulum from which he drew inspiration for manufacturing his own paper, ink and type design. If Morris turned his personal ambition into a ‘movement’, Walpole had set an early example of the notion of a private press. He founded his Strawberry Hill Press in June 1757. It is the most celebrated of the early English private presses, unique for the importance of the books, pamphlets, and ephemera it produced. Walpole called it the Officina Arbuteana and employed Irishman William Robinson as his printer. Walpole was an admirer of the Elzevier publishing dynasty, referring to his private press as the ‘Elzevirianum’. On 16 July 1757 he wrote to George Montagu: ‘Elzevirianum opens to-day; you shall taste its first fruits’. His cousin Field Marshal Henry Seymour Conway called him ‘Elzevir Horace’. Many of the first editions of his own works were struck off within its walls. The first works printed at Strawberry Hill, on 8 August 1757, were two odes of Thomas Gray, ‘The Progress of Poesy’ and ‘The Bard’. Several books of interest were printed at the press, such as Hentzner’s Journey into England, Mémoires de Grammont, The Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, etc., and several of Walpole’s own works. The emphasis of the press was on the physical quality of the book produced. The publication of Lucan’s Pharsalia is a notable example.
Hugo Grotius’s text edition of this particular work was published by Raphelengius in Leiden in 1614 with reissues in 1626 and 1627 (and probably also in 1639). A revised edition was published in 1643 by Blaeu in Amsterdam. The house of Blaeu also brought out two Grotius editions of the Pharsalia in small format in 1619 and 1627; these editions were reprinted in 1626 and 1636 by Blaeu’s neighbour Janssonius. Walpole sought the support Richard Bentley, classical scholar and Master of Trinity, Cambridge, to supplement the notes supplied by his Dutch predecessor. After two laborious years of preparation, the volume appeared in quarto, M. Annaei Lucani Pharsalia. Cum notis Hugonis Grotii et Richardi Bentleii, etc. (Strawberry-Hill, 1760). Five hundred beautiful copies were printed on paper marked J.W. (= James Whatman), the outstanding papermaker of his day.