Horace Walpole, the son of Britain’s first prime minister, an 18th-century antiquarian and one of the first British art historians, just moved in on the corner of Chapel and High streets.
The Yale Center for British Art opened its new exhibit “Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill” last Thursday. The show is curated by Michael Snodin, senior research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Cynthia Roman, the curator of prints, drawings and paintings at the Lewis Walpole Library, a Yale-owned library in Farmington, Conn. The exhibit recreates a stroll through the different rooms of Strawberry Hill — Walpole’s Gothic-revival mansion outside London.
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“This [exhibit] has done what Walpole could never have done in collecting,” said Margaret Powell, the executive director of the Lewis Walpole Library. A third of the objects in the British Art Center collection come directly from the Lewis Walpole Library, which was established in 1980 after W.S. Lewis ’18 bequeathed his world-renowned cache of Walpole’s letters and manuscripts to the University.
The exhibit coalesced from the joint efforts of the library, the British Art Center and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“An amazing transatlantic team pulled this exhibition together,” British Art Center Director Amy Meyers said. “This is a collection with an extraordinary political and intellectual agenda.”
The show coincides with ongoing restoration work on the Walpole summer home, also spearheaded by Snodin, which renewed attention on Walpole’s collection and inspired the center to undertake the exhibit.
The entrance to the British Art Center exhibit features two key pieces: a Joshua Reynolds portrait of Horace Walpole — “as a gentleman and scholar, as he wished to be seen,” Snodin said in an interview — and a scenic landscape of Walpole’s stately Strawberry Hill. The exhibit explores the Walpole castle’s layout and contents with a room-by-room display that focuses on ancestral portraiture, well preserved prints and 15th-century artifacts. Key pieces include a marble bust that likely depicts King Henry VII in agony of death, a steel and gilt coat of French or Flemish armor from around 1600, and an extensive display of Walpole’s antique book collection.
Walpole was attracted to the romance of 17th-century kings’ courts and formed his collection around his love of rich materials such as gold, mahogany and stained glass, Roman said. The curators explained that many portraits in the exhibit delineate important members of the Walpole family in noble splendor, in the style of Baroque painters Anthony Van Dyck and Antoine Watteau.
Walpole’s prized coin collection tells the story of the British monarchy in Walpole’s era, while an early renaissance-style gilt clock, believed to have commemorated King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, creates an authentic air of regality in the recreated library, Snodin said.
The curators emphasized Walpole’s interest in history — both personal and national.
“[Walpole] had a highly concentrated interest, a profound creativity, in developing a story of history, both British and Walpolean,” said Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, an assistant curator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and co-curator for the “Mrs. Delany and her Circle” exhibit now on display at the British Art Center.
Meyers said excitement surrounds this exhibit because Walpole’s objects have not existed together in quite a while.
The team behind the show united the crown jewels of the Walpole collection for the first time after a massive estate sale in 1842 scattered Strawberry Hill’s remains.
“With items coming from the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert, royal collections and Yale’s own Lewis Walpole Library, this reassemblage is a rare opportunity to overhear conversations from the high times of Strawberry Hill,” Meyers said.
“The spaces here at the center are so domestic,” echoed Snodin. “It really feels as though we’re at Strawberry Hill.”
There is also interplay between the Walpole exhibit and the retrospective of Mary Delany’s life and work in botanical art, also on display at the British Art Center. Walpole worked in concert with Mary Delany and her circle, offering personal and national perspectives to her natural history.
“Walpole in fact designed the frame that surrounds Delany’s portrait displayed just downstairs from his collection here,” Snodin and Roman said.
Despite the enthusiasm of the curators, some British Art Center student tour guides said they think the center lacks the visibility necessary to show off such an extraordinary show.
“I’m worried that [the exhibit] is not going to be received at all by undergraduates because so few know about the British Art Center,” student guide Ilana Harris-Babou ’13 said.
Still, she added that anyone able to visit the Walpole exhibit will be impressed by the persona and collection of Walpole.
“Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill” will be on display at the Yale Center for British Art until Jan. 3.