The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently hosting the first ever exhibition on the eighteenth-century writer and collector Horace Walpole, whose collections were housed at Strawberry Hill, an eccentric manor house in Twickenham which, after major restoration work, will open to the public in the Autumn. The V&A’s exhibition, Walpole and Strawberry Hill, features items from the house, which display the eccentricities of Walpole himself, and the extent to which the house befitted the man who created the Gothic literary genre with his first novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764.
The first object I saw in the exhibition was an “official” portrait of him by Reynolds, which sets the tone for the man himself, wanting to be seen as a gentleman of taste, a scholar, a historian, and indeed something like a (respectable) Gothic hero. It is difficult not to look at the objects in the exhibition as comments on Walpole, his eclectic taste and his clearly unusual behaviour. For example, he enjoyed objects with Royal connections, and thus greeted visitors to Strawberry Hill (on the occasions when he was not hiding from them) wearing gloves reputed to have belonged to James I, topped with a wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons. He also owned a non-reflective mirror that belonged to Dr Dee, used for seeing Satan, apparently, and a lock of Mary Tudor’s hair.
The house itself is conjured in pictures and in the construction of the exhibition, which feels as though one is walking through rooms. The feeling of “gloomth”, as Walpole described it, is evident here, and, as Christopher Frayling recently said on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves, this exhibition makes one realise that it is “about more than the anecdote of the house”; the collection, and the diverse nature of it, says a lot about material culture of the period as well as about the idea of “shopping-list Gothic” (in which a novel can be said to be Gothic if it contains certain items such as candlesticks, old coffers, a monk, etc). Yet Walpole’s was not the collecting of a connoisseur, but rather that of someone who was compulsive, and ended up with a collection so obscure and diverse that it somehow hangs together very well.
Frayling also suggests that the Gothic chairs which Walpole had made, intended to look old, are perhaps the most important thing in the exhibition, startinig as they did a major revival of neo-medieval furniture. It’s impossible not to be fascinated by the exhibition, but it didn’t quite satisfy my interest; I shall be lining up to see Strawberry Hill when it re-opens.