The Yale Center for British Art is giving a whole new meaning to hands-on learning — complete with a trip across the pond to delve into the world of Horace Walpole.
Walpole and his curious architectural aesthetic choice is the subject of a yearlong, two-credit research project for art history major Andrew Lee ’09. As part of a Special Term Course offered through the YCBA, Lee has zeroed in on Strawberry Hill, a villa owned by Walpole, the youngest son of England’s first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole renovated the house from the ground up in his own avant-garde gothic style after purchasing it in 1748.
“Horace Walpole was basically in modern terms a dilettante. He was never really expected to do anything and his chief interest was collecting,” Lee says.
Over the past two years the curriculum of the course has centered on Strawberry Hill. This year, Lee’s research focuses specifically on the architecture of the Walpole home, while last year’s participant in the course, Megan Juel ’07, researched sculpture inside the house.
In lieu of turkey and apple pie with his family, Lee spent his Thanksgiving break in London, visiting the house as part of two research trips he will undertake during course. His independent study will culminate this semester in a senior thesis-length paper, and in the fall of 2009, the YCBA will feature an exhibition on Strawberry Hill based on the work of Lee, Juel and professional curators for the YCBA.
The ownership of Strawberry Hill, which has been in the hands of St. Mary’s University College since 1925, was transferred to the Strawberry Hill Trust in July of 2007. Since July, the trust has been raising the funds necessary in order to restore the dilapidated house. The reopening of the gothic castle is set to coincide with the opening of the Strawberry Hill exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in spring 2010. The restoration is needed because the house was essentially made out of papier-mache — an unusual material choice since it is unable to endure the test of time, explained Lee.
“What we’ve been looking specifically for in the course so far are the connections between narrative and architecture in Walpole’s project,” said Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, a post-doctoral associate at the YCBA and Lee’s course instructor.
Walpole was integral to the gothic revival. Although others were interested in reintegrating the gothic aesthetic into British art and architecture even before he was, Strawberry Hill is often referred to as one of the first gothic revival houses, said Lee. Walpole was essentially the first to reintroduce an “archeologically correct sensibility,” explained Lee. Walpole mixed gothic elements from nations including Spain and France in order to lend a greater legitimacy to his project.
Lee said Walpole paid attention to every detail right down to the hang of his paintings.
“His life work was in the area of collection and playing around with architecture. [Strawberry Hill] was sort of his toy,” Lee said.
Lee, a student tour guide at the YCBA and last year’s coordinator of the student guide program, discovered the independent study through his work with the museum. Although anyone may apply, Lee said that most students who have applied or participated in the course are either student guides or history of art majors.
“Our hope is that students will acquire new research skills and a greater understanding of the way in which an exhibition goes from concept to execution, and that it will prove invaluable experience for those who may be looking forward to graduate study,” Lisa Ford, the associate head of research at the YCBA, said.
This is the third year that the YCBA has offered the course, and it is funded by a grant from the Andrew Mellon foundation. Applicants must apply in the spring and interview with the director of the museum. Lee said that the interview process is very competitive because only one person is chosen every year and each applicant must go before a panel of judges.
As part of the course, Lee is required to meet several times each week with Weisberg-Roberts, who assigns him weekly reading relevant to the topic of Walpole’s “Strawberry Hill.” A different member of the YCBA instructs the course each year; last year’s coordinator was Julia Marciari-Alexander, the YCBA’s director of exhibitions.
Although Lee greatly enjoyed his time conducting research for the YCBA, he remains unsure whether or not he will pursue curatorial work as a profession. He says he is torn between the museum and commercial sides of the art world, but his research on Strawberry Hill has given him invaluable experience no matter which course he decides.
According to Lee, one of the greatest assets of the independent study is how closely he is able to work with his instructor and others who work at the YCBA. He said that over the past semester, he has been able meet people and view collections that he would not have been able to otherwise.
“The whole experience of independent study is one in which you get to interact much more closely with the professor and the museum even if its only by osmosis,” he said. “You learn more than in a class for which you have to memorize a bunch of lists.”
During Lee’s trip to London in November, he met with Michael Snodin, the fine arts curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Snodin, the chairman of the Strawberry Hill trust, is spearheading the restoration of Strawberry Hill and curating the YCBA’s exhibition. Lee also sat in on a meeting of the Strawberry Hill trustees at the house with Snodin. In addition to November’s London trip, Lee will travel to Huntington, Calif., this spring for further research, though the details of that trip have yet to be finalized.
“It’s an iconic building in this gothic revival style,” Lee said. “It’s fascinating but kind of absurd if you think about it.”