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June 18, 2010

Christie Davies considers Horace Walpole and his cat: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill at the V&A

Posted by Christie Davies

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
6 March - 4 July 2010
Daily 10am - 5.30pm (Fridays until 9.30pm)

The artistic collection once owned by Horace Walpole (1717-97), displayed at his famous house Strawberry Hill and now reassembled at the V and A is as exquisite as Strawberry Hill itself, which will be opened to the public in Twickenham later this year. The long, expert and painstaking restoration is nearly completed. The exhibition is both a treat and a promise of treats to come.

Walpole lived an age of architecture that imitated the horrors of the Greek temples of Agrigentum in Sicily with their rows of columns marching round them like hapless hoplites suddenly frozen into stone; Pirandello knew better and lived next door in Chaos. Walpole rejected this rigid Euclidean, compass and ruler only, approach to shape and pioneered the flowing Gothick, a light playful almost frivolous style.

It is quite unlike the heavy-serious, moral gothic of the nineteenth century's sententiously sermonizing Protestant churches and the pugnacious Puginism of their Roman Catholic contemporaries. Walpole (Eton and King's) original love of gothic was inspired by the hours he spent in King's College Chapel in Cambridge looking up at the glorious fan-vaulted ceiling as an escape from the droning prayers and the pip-squeaking of the choirboys. King's has always been a haunt, indeed a producer, of aesthetes and eccentrics. Walpole's successors at King's have included Oscar Browning, William Johnson Cory and John Maynard Keynes who, being too ungainly to become a ballet dancer, married one. I have often wondered what it is that Kingsmen have in common.

Strawberry Hill was a model of dancing eclecticism which merged all manner of real and imagined parts. Strawberry Hill was play. It was a place of affected shadowy "gloomth" yet separated only by its windows from the brightness of nature of bosky, rural Twickenham before it was spoiled by rugby hooligans and Vince Cable the grim political economist. The interior of the house was an intricate play of the shadowy and the well lit. Walpole spoke of its romantic shadows as "Gloomth" as opposed to the glumth of the contemporary great houses, which were all pillars and triangles and no fun.

Walpole filled his house with "fantastic" items to which he could, sometime fancifully, attach particular historical characters. A black obsidian Aztec mirror he attributed to the Elizabethan magician Dr John Dee and claimed that Dee used it to communicate with the spirits. Dee's name means black so it may be a pun; black mirror, black name, the black arts.

Many have condemned Strawberry Hill as a sham, as unserious and frivolous, as mere game playing. But what is wrong with that? There is nothing aesthetically deficient in rococo décor or in the paintings of fêtes gallants by Boucher, Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Watteau. The very varied aesthetic pleasures to be derived from Walpole's diverse collections are far superior in honesty of feeling and meaning to the monotonous cerebral deceptions of American abstract expressionism; the latter have as much glowing, tactile qualities as algebra but lack its capacity to enlighten. In the post-modern era which has succeeded that bleak and fraudulent modernity, we can once more celebrate the eclectic blending of styles favoured by this scholarly connoisseur.

Unfortunately Walpole's only real successor in Britain has been William Burges, architect of Castell Coch, Cardiff Castle and the Tower House, Kensington. Together with Strawberry Hill they constitute four tiny islands of joie de vivre.

Every style that preceded the classical was there in Strawberry Hill and is represented in the exhibition. In one exhibition room are stained glass windows and a finely gilded suit of armour. It includes a shaffron, the armour for the head of a horse with high raised protective ear pieces for equine ears pricked-up by excitement and a projecting sharp spike fitted between the gaps that enabled the horse to see. What terror that massive spike-nosed horse must have inspired in Swiss pike men, Welsh longbow men and Taborites alike before it ended up in the Boucherie Chevaline and the tables of the hippophagous. From here the viewer moves to the Holbein chamber where Walpole slept alongside Holbein drawings and a variety of paintings and portrayals of that period; next to Walpole's bed hung his great prize, the broad red Cardinal's hat of the great Wolsey himself.

The library was Walpole's gothick gem with matching bookcases and furniture rising to ogee arches. It was a working library in which he composed the antiquarian works for which he was famous. Walpole also wrote the gothic novel Otranto and the extensive and waspish memoirs published after his death that tell us so much about the eighteenth century.

In Walpole's state apartments hang portraits of his family by leading contemporary artists including Allan Ramsay and Sir Joshua Reynolds alongside earlier works by Lely and van Dyke. Walpole's father, Sir Robert Walpole is portrayed standing next to a table on which sit the great purse of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and busts of George I and II, the two kings whom he served. Also in the picture is Walpole's mother who claimed descent from Cadwaladr ap Meirchion, King of Cambria, one of the sons of Cunedda those men of the North, who in the 5th century AD drove the savage and pagan Irish invaders right out of our island. Some say they have returned but I cannot possibly comment.

What concerns us here is Walpole's wish firmly to embed not only his house but his family in the long history of our nation. Walpole was not lacking in humour, for he also collected satirical prints and was a patron of Hogarth. On display is Gillray's The Introduction with that characteristic mockery of an over-eager, eyes-popping out George III.

Nowhere is Walpole's exquisite and fastidious taste better displayed than in the cases of miniatures painted in watercolour on ivory or vellum and of enamels. He owned 1200 pieces of china including three hundred oriental items collected by his artistic mother.

Walpole's only lapses stem from his perverse desire to collect art produced by women, for he had deluded himself into thinking that there was such a thing as "female genius", a purely expressive outburst of feeling unhindered by thought. We can see some of these errors in the exhibition in the paintings of Lady Diana Beauclerk and in the representations of animals by the cross-dressing sculptress Anne Damer to whom Walpole left Strawberry Hill in his will to be her studio. The caricaturists of the day had great sport with Ms Damer. Their work is not merely bad but bad enough to inspire numerous PhDs in wimmen's studies in some dreadful spinsters' college in New England.

It is interesting to speculate what manner of a man the elegant and fastidious Horace Walpole was. He adored and lived with his mother and was a confirmed bachelor whose only relations with women were with those whom he could not possibly marry, such as elderly dowagers and women who had been exiled from polite society because of their past scandalous conduct. Sometimes they showered him with welcome works of art and sometimes with unwelcome attentions and affections from which he retreated in good order.

Walpole compensated for his lack of family life through his love for his cat and his many close male friendships. Indeed the exhibition begins with the very tub for goldfish in which Walpole's cat Selima drowned. It is a Chinese wonder of floating blue pines, blossoms and clouds. Perhaps the cat thought it too could float, for it crouched on the rim, eyeing the goldfish, and fell in. The grief stricken Walpole asked his dear chum from Eton, Thomas Gray to write a suitably catty elegy for the tragic moggy but Gray rather stretched it out:

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat (1748)
Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr'd applause.
Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat's averse to fish?
Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled.
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in…..
But all that can be viewed in the exhibition is the homicidal Chinese vase that shanghaied the cat on which Walpole had engraved a line of Gray's ode. Why could the cat not have been cremated and its ashes kept for eternity in this oriental ornamental urn?

Today there are no Horace Walpoles left. He was a limp and elegant product of his time. It is impossible even to imagine a twenty-first century version of this unique collector and connoisseur. That makes it all the more important to remember what he was and what he created and the V and A has done just that.

Professor Christie Davies teaches at Krosno College, Poland.


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What an insidious piece. The Kingsmen listed are all gay and oaedophile as indeed by tradition are many members of that college. Walpole was essentially a gay interior decorator with flamboyant tastes. This explains his love of cats and of Thomas Gray and his absurd idea that women have artistic talent as distinct from aspirations. Gays have a wonderful weakness for listening to women's boring prattle and encouraging the little dears rather that seducing them without listening..

Posted by: Ernest at July 18, 2010 10:52 PM
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