A new exhibition has opened at Horace Walpole’s fairytale gothic castle in Twickenham that reunites some of his finest, and quirkiest, treasures…
Those unacquainted with the area or ‘Man of Letters’ Horace Walpole would perhaps be more than a little surprised to see the turrets of a white gothic castle among the rooftops of Twickenham. The son of the first British prime minister Robert Walpole, Horace had a taste for the eccentric, building, stage by stage from 1747, his gothic-revival fantasy out of some rather humble buildings in the fashionable town.
While the villa was used to entertain, its main purpose was to house his growing collection or art, furniture and curios, which included everything from miniatures and paintings to Cardinal Wolsey’s hat and a lock of Mary Tudor’s hair. A copy of Charles I’s death warrant was said to have hung by Walpole’s bed. There was also an obsidian disc, which Queen Elizabeth I’s necromancer Dr Dee, had used for conjuring up spirits.
It was an eclectic collection, and not without its critics. A piece purporting to be from the time of the Crusades would have been impossible, but, says curator Justin Roberts, Walpole would have known that. While many objects were collected because of their provenance, others were more to tell stories and create a sense of the theatrical.
Indeed the very house is an elaborate set. The villa has grand turrets, cloisters, stained-glass windows and opulent fireplaces. It was perhaps too grand – Walpole lived in only a handful of the rooms, and while the library is a vast palace of leather-bound tomes in arched bookshelves, the study is a modest and simple space in contrast. The villa inspired his work, The Castle of Otranto, said to be the first gothic novel, and it was here he wrote it, the book launching a whole genre, including the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
But after Walpole’s death, the house passed into various hands through the years, some more respectful of it than others, and the collection was dispersed far and wide in the great ‘sale of the century’ in 1842. Some found their way to the Louvre (Francis I’s jewelled manuscript), to Yale University (from the 1920s to the 70s, Walpole scholar Wilmarth S Lewis amassed a great collection of Walpoliana, which he bequeathed to Yale), and to the likes of Sudeley Castle and Longleat.
At the time, some mocked the sale – Justin points out that the Victorians were not big fans – Pugin even called Walpole sacrilegious because of the mock references to the church such as a cloisters in the grounds, complete with fonts, when Walpole himself was not religious. That said, in the great sale, Queen Victoria bought a clock given to Anne Boleyn by Henry VIII, and this piece will be among the highlights of the new exhibition. Other highlights include Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, and a carved Roman eagle will also take pride of place. Walpole left extensive notes about his collection in the main rooms of the villa, and many items will be in their original position.
Walpole is remembered as a writer and for his prodigious recording of social history, however, the exhibition will shed light on what must have been his main preoccupation – that of an avid and eccentric collector.