Walpole exhibit crosses the Atlantic

Johann Heinrich Müntz, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, from the South, ca. 1755-59.
Johann Heinrich Müntz, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, from the South, ca. 1755-59. Photo by Amir Sharif.

LONDON — For those who missed “Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill” at the Yale Center for British Art last fall, there is a second chance to see it. But this time it will cost £6 and a $500 plane ticket.

The exhibit, now on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is the second part of the collaborative effort of Yale and the V&A to reunite the trinkets and treasures from Strawberry Hill, the Gothic-revival mansion that housed 18th century art collector Sir Horace Walpole’s quirky collections of paintings, furniture and decorative arts. Though the V&A exhibit, which opened on March 4, represents the latest of the center’s exhibits to show abroad, it is part of a long tradition of collaboration across the Atlantic.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Horace Walpole, ca. 1756–57
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Horace Walpole, ca. 1756–57

“It’s something we do on a regular basis,” said Ricardo Sandoval ’06, the center’s public relations coordinator.

Center director Amy Meyers explained that the center has cooperated with a variety of international institutions in the past, including The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is currently working on an exhibition with the Prado in Madrid.

“All of our projects are all major, major, major research projects that receive international attention,” Meyers said.

The exhibition showcases a smorgasbord of pieces — ranging from portraits of the Walpoles to a golden clock presented by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn — which were originally amassed by the socialite intellectual Walpole, also the son of England’s first prime minister.

Although the London presentation features nearly the same collection of materials shown at Yale, the two exhibitions have their differences.

The immediately noticeable distinction between the two is the presentation space. The third floor of Louis I. Kahn’s Center for British Art, where “Strawberry Hill” was hosted this past fall, is a relatively intimate setting, with low ceilings, small galleries and tight doorways. Meanwhile, the V&A was forced to downsize its gallery space — an open hall with triple-height ceilings of ribbed vaulting — by dimming the lights and placing an asymmetrical partition with Gothic flourishes in the center of the space. The result at the V&A, while somewhat less homely and comfortable than Yale’s show, is much closer to the original sensibility of Strawberry Hill — large walls crowded with sketches and paintings and extravagant spaces shrouded in darkness and ambiguity.

“We were a little constrained at the Center for British Art,” said Alicia Weisberg, a postdoctoral research associate with the center who worked on the project. “For example, we didn’t have the wall space to be able to put a full length portrait over a commode. Different spaces have different kinds of flexibilities.”

Standing near the entrance of the gallery, Cecily Booth, a London resident visiting the show with her 9-year-old granddaughter, said she felt like she was at Strawberry Hill, even though the estate is located miles away south of London on the banks of the River Thames.

“It’s all so charming,” Booth said as she pointed to a wall of sketches, hung seamlessly side-by-side to reveal the grounds. “It’s a wonder it’s all been brought back together,” she continued. “What a homecoming.”

While the pieces have returned back to their original vicinity, most of the pieces will return to their private collections after the exhibition, making their rare get-together even more significant.

“There are so many objects,” said Cynthia Roman, a curator from the Yale-owned Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Conn. “It’s so great that we could get them in the same place again.”

One of the more peculiar items among Walpole’s “principal curiosities,” as he referred to them, is an obsidian mirror first used by the Aztecs in the worship of a divinity named Tezcatlipoca, a name that roughly translates to Lord of the Smoking Mirror. The black disk, which Weisberg called her favorite item in the exhibition, eventually landed in the hands of Dr. Dee, a magician to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who used the strange disk to conjure visions and images of spirits. Walpole acquired the mirror in 1771, but his estate auctioned off the piece in 1842.

Today, the disk can be seen in a small niche in the central serpentine aisle of the gallery space.

Peering into its flat surface last Thursday at the V&A, Booth’s granddaughter said she could see the South American tribesmen.

The exhibition will be on display at the V&A until July 4. “Mrs. Delany and Her Circle,” another exhibition that was at the center this past fall is also currently on display in London, at Sir John Soane’s Museum.

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