A recent front-page article in the News informs us that the Yale Center for British Art suffers from a lack of visibility: Many undergraduates, apparently, do not know it exists. There will be some who turn their nose up at the very idea of pre-twentieth century British art, dismissing it as derivative, dull, second-rate. That said, I encourage everyone, teeming undergraduate masses, skeptics and veterans of the British Art Center alike, to investigate “Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill,” a new exhibition that will be running in New Haven through Jan. 3; it may or may not make you a regular visitor to the museum, but it should leave you with a renewed appreciation for the eccentricities of our cousins across the pond.
Horace Walpole, who, among other things, invented the Gothic novel with “The Castle of Otranto,” was born the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first prime minister, and became well known in his own right as a writer, social critic and man of letters. That said, his true claim to fame was Strawberry Hill, the summer villa he built near London on the outskirts of the then-chic village of Twickenham, a location chosen for its literary associations — Alexander Pope was a longtime resident. Strawberry Hill, though, stood in stark contrast to its neighboring country houses: Thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Walpole was able to construct a new kind of house in the “Gothick” style. The result, built in stages between 1748 and 1776, borrowed freely from medieval forms, in the end resembling a monastery in parts and a fortified castle in others. The house, which inaugurated a new architectural trend and presaged the Gothic revivals of the nineteenth century, became a popular gathering place for England’s moneyed and intellectual elites. At the same time, Walpole set out to acquire a large collection of antique paintings and curiosities to complement his house and delight his visitors. A part of that collection, alongside paintings of Walpole and Strawberry Hill itself, now occupies the third floor of the Yale Center for British Art, where curators have attempted to capture some of the peculiar character of Strawberry Hill and the singular man behind it.
The house itself was a reaction against the Palladian style favored by Walpole’s father in the construction of Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Where the older style emphasized capacious, light-filled interiors, Strawberry Hill’s intimate, dusky rooms were intended to exemplify “gloomth,” a term which Walpole coined not to convey fright or melancholy but “a world of airy and intricate effects combined with shadow.” If not quite a haunted house, Strawberry Hill nevertheless abounded with portraits featuring sallow, spectral complexions and sunken expressions. One of these, a massive 1603 full-length of a nobleman decked out in white silk from head to toe, makes an appearance in “The Castle of Otranto,” wherein he leaps out of the frame and into the flesh.
Unlike that other great outburst of nostalgia, the Renaissance, Walpole’s revival had little interest in the ancient world — only one painting in the exhibition, a depiction of the education of Venus wrongly attributed to Poussin, features a classical theme. Walpole’s tastes generally are fixated upon the medieval, and he seems especially taken with the medieval Church: Describing one room in Strawberry Hill, he boasted that it displayed “all the glory of popery,” containing “all the air of a Catholic chapel — bar consecration.” This fascination with ecclesiastical aesthetics is evident throughout the collection. One room features a deep red wide-brimmed hat that belonged to Cardinal Wolsey; at once austere and theatrical, simple and extravagant, this object serves as a fitting reflection of both its owners. Elsewhere, you can see the full parade armor of Francis I, arguably the last medieval King of France, in Walpole’s description “of steel gilt, and covered with bas-reliefs in a fine taste.” Walpole also collected portraits and mementos of the Tudor monarchs, including one excellent bust of Henry VII dying in agony. Perhaps Walpole, bored with the well-behaved Hanoverian monarchs of his day, identified the Tudors’ bloody excess with a more grotesque, more interesting — in other words, more Gothic — time.
Every revival comprises a kind of misremembering of the past, and Walpole’s is no exception. Aside from the hodgepodge of architectural forms employed in the construction of Strawberry Hill, a large number of the paintings and objects on display (which often come with Walpole’s own descriptions from a 1774 catalog of the collection) were originally misattributed regarding artist or provenance. All of which might lead one to deem Walpole a collector of kitsch and the collection a mere reflection of eccentric tastes. But that does not do justice to this riotously entertaining exhibition, which brings a larger-than-life figure within the immediate grasp of our imagination.
Bring a friend; curse Horace Walpole for every time you’ve been scowled at by a goth; leave smiling.