I recently attended this fascinating exhibition which is being staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I say staged for it is a magnificent theatrical evocation of all Walpole’s interests, which were many and varied, collecting together, sometimes for the first time in over 100 years, objects associated with Walpole and his Gothic confection of a house at Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, here depicted by Paul Sandby. (and please note you can enlarge all the illustrations here merely by clicking on them)

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was the youngest son of George II’s powerful prime minister, Robert Walpole. He was an MP for over 20 years but it was not his political causes which remain of interest to us, but his artistic endeavours.

For anyone who studies the 18th century, encountering Horace Walpole is inevitable. He was a prolific author of many fascinating letters(collected in 48 volumes!) full of waspish comment; he moved among the highest social circles and his impressions of his world and the many, many people he encountered are engagingly reflected in his papers. He was an avid art collector and an antiquarian, an amateur architect and landscape gardener , and importantly for admirers of Northanger Abbey, was the father of the Gothic Novel, being the author of the first of the genre, The Castle of Otranto.

The exhibit, which is contained just in a series of ten sections all dealing with different aspects of Walpole’s life and interests is fascinating. I am even considering revisiting it as I don’t think I really managed to see and appreciate everything despite spending a long time there( luckily my companion is as interested in the 18th century as I!)

His house at Strawberry Hill– which is undergoing a thorough and needed restoration and will re-open in the autumn  -and its contents is at the heart of the exhibit.

Apart from the connection with Otranto,there is another Austenesque connection with Walpole: Horace, along with his circle of friends including John Chute

of The Vyne in Hampshire, were very influential in reviving interest in the aesthetic aspects of the Gothic era. Indeed a common name for this revived architectural style is Strawberry Hill Gothic. The Chute family – though the next generation on from Horace’s friend, John, were friendly with the Austen family ( especially Jane Austen’s eldest brother James who was vicar of Sherborne St John, the parish in which The Vyne is situated )

Horace consulted them closely on all aspects of the exterior and interior decoration of his house. Here, as an example of the interior, is the wonderful gallery complete with papier mache fan vaulting

If you go here you can view a short video of the exhibit and Strawberry Hill’s restoration, which I hope you will enjoy.

It is difficult to isolate pieces in the exhibit for mention here they were so many and so magnificent: a locket containing  Mary Tudor’s hair, a Cardinal’s hat believed to have been owned by Wolsey…..many wonderful things: so I’ve decided to show you a few items that I found particularly  interesting.

Horace Walpole was fascinated with the romantic aspects of the past: his collection of 17th century miniatures included these of the Digby family, Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife, Venitia. They were Catholic supporters of Charles I and Sir Kenelm is now remembered as the author of one of my favourite antiquarian  cookery books The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby kt Opened(1669)

These miniatures, wonderful though they appear, are enclosed in an equally magnificently enamelled case:

Sir Kenelme’s wife died suddenly in 1633, and Sir Kenelme commissioned Sir Anthony van Dyke to capture her appearance on her death bed which was copied in this miniature

Another article I found fascinating was this cabinet, decorated with panels drawn by Lady Diana Beauclark,whose scandalous divorce from Visccount Bolingbroke after her adulterous affair with Sir Topham Beauclerk made her a sensation and outcast from her class.

She also designed the Wedgwood plagues used to decorate the interior of the cabinet

The relationship between Horace and disgraced women like Diana Beauclerk is an intriguing part of his personality . He never married and speculation on his sexuality rages today.

His home in the fashionable village of Twickenham was derided by the purist Gothick  admirers of the 19th century, most importantly and prominently, Augustus Pugin. But recently it has regained its rightful place as part of the history of design. If you cannot visit the exhibition which ends in July, then I strongly recommend the sumptuously illustrated catalogue of the exhibition edited by Michael Snodin the director of the Strawberry Hill Trust, published by Yale.