Sophie Campbell



Strawberry Hill gets its stuff back

October 24, 2018

In the spring of 1842 the auctioneer George Robins opened a month-long ‘Great Sale’ of the contents of Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, which, the catalogue observed, could be ‘fearlessly proclaimed as the most distinguished gem that has ever adorned the annals of auctions.’

This week, for the first time in over 170 years, part of that collection of paintings, bibelots, furniture and eccentricities assembled in the eighteenth century by the fourth earl of Orford, better known as the socialite and aesthete Horace Walpole, returns to his former home beside the River Thames.

Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, Middlesex

The place is a treat to visit anyway: Walpole bought the original house in the 1740s and set about converting it into a gothic confection, adding ogee windows, turrets, pinnacles, stained glass, a library and a long gallery, at a time when restrained neo-classical architecture was all the rage. He added the first privately-owned printing press in England, on which he produced, among other things, the first English gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, written at the peak of his Strawberry Hill fervour.

There are some absolute gems spread across the maze of rooms, from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of the Ladies Waldegrave (such a hit at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1781 that all three accomplished young ladies were said to have made excellent marriages) to an exquisitely-enamelled Limoges hunting horn made in 1538. There’s a lock of Mary Tudor’s hair and Hogarth’s gruesome painting of the double-murderess Sarah Malcolm holding ‘Popish beads’ (or a rosary).

At the time of the auction the collection was so large and the interest so great that they had to build a two-storey viewing pavilion in the garden. Robins conducted the month-long sale from an elaborately-carved high-backed wooden armchair (now on show), quite unaware that it was a Strawberry Hill gem in its own right as the alleged possession of one of the signatories of Guy Fawkes’ death warrant.

What a Walpolian touch that is. The pale, gossipy younger son of the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole – who provided his son’s spending money via government sinecures – delighted in whimsies, wobbly provenance or not: Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, a limewood cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons, hunting gauntlets possibly owned by James I, a painting of the first pineapple grown in England. He pounced on them like a magpie, placing them carefully in his elaborate conceit of a home.

It’s such a treat to see the rooms re-populated and it’s such a spectacular achievement by the curators Silvia Davoli and Michael Snodin, who scoured the internet and Instagram, visited private houses and foreign collections and negotiated with bodies such as Yale University, which holds the world’s biggest collection of ‘Walpoliana’, to bring around 50 items back to the house.

Their return is a milestone in a 25-year project to revive Strawberry Hill House, which was dilapidated after many years as a teacher training college. Its 25 showrooms are now restored, repainted and refurnished, using Walpole’s inventories and the many drawings and paintings he commissioned from friends. Not to mention the sale catalogue, which annotated in detail every one of the objects that would be scattered to the four winds. ‘The Great Sale was a tragedy,’ says one of the curators, ‘But it resulted in a catalogue in the very earliest days of cataloguing.’ That’s now a valuable exhibit in itself.

It’s worth going sooner rather than later: it’s only going to be there for six months. It’s a charming, eccentric show – and the house of whimsy will seem bereft when it’s gone.






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