Horace Walpole’s precious collection of art, antiques and curios once filled his Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill. Sold at auction by a profligate heir, the scattered treasures, now reunited, are set to return home
On the banks of the river Thames, near Twickenham, sits Strawberry Hill House. This Gothic Revival villa, with its dazzling white exterior, its turrets and arched windows, was the creation of one extraordinary man, who built it as a giant showcase for his treasured collection of artworks, antiquities and curiosities.
He was Horace Walpole (1717–97), the youngest son of Britain’s first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Today, he’s best known as the author of the first-ever Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and as a prolific letter-writer, whose correspondence gives us a fascinating glimpse into life in the eighteenth century.
In his own lifetime though, it was Strawberry Hill, and the eclectic collection it housed, that made Walpole famous, and this winter the two are to be reunited for an exciting new exhibition.
Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill is the result of a three-year quest to track down Walpole’s collection, which was scattered across the globe after its sale at auction in 1842. The curators have been longing to bring it home again ever since Strawberry Hill re-opened to the public in 2010, after a £10m restoration project; without Walpole’s treasures, the house is a spectacular, but largely empty, shell.
In all, 160 treasures – as varied as the original collection – are returning home, and you can expect the twenty-five show rooms to be transformed by their presence.
A particular treat will be the family portraits gracing the walls of the Great Parlour. This room was a key part of Walpole’s ironic portrayal of Strawberry Hill as an old and cherished ancestral seat, and works such as Reynolds’ portrait of The Ladies Waldegrave were commissioned specifically for this space. Reynolds’ painting plays a particularly poignant part in the exhibition too, as these were Walpole’s great-nieces, the eldest of whom, Laura, inherited Strawberry Hill in 1810. Through her, the collection fell into the hands of the wild and profligate 7th Earl of Waldegrave, who put it up for auction.
Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill runs from 20 October 2018 to 24 February 2019. See www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk for details and tickets
Words: Felicity Day