Horace Walpole, Strawberry Hill and "Anecdotes of Painting in England"
Horace Walpole (1717–97) is best known today for his vast correspondence – now available online – and for Strawberry Hill, his extraordinary country house at Twickenham, London. There, he set up a printing press and created some of the most sought-after publications of 18th-century Britain. In 1762 he began to print Anecdotes of Painting in England, the country’s first comprehensive history of art from the Middle Ages to the mid-18th century. Lavishly illustrated and printed in a small run, it quickly became a collector’s item as well as a foundational text of national art history. Thanks to the Clifford M. Brown Library Endowment, the National Gallery of Canada has been able to acquire a first edition of this celebrated publication.
Walpole is inseparable from his house at Strawberry Hill – a kind of physical alter ego, embodying his imagination and affectations. A showpiece for his collection, it was the building itself that caught the attention of his contemporaries. He had it decorated in the Gothic Revival style, transforming monumental stone models into domestic-scaled wood, plaster and papier-mâché. Gothic art was, to Walpole, an aesthetic of fantasy and inventiveness – key, but disputed ideas in 18th-century art. He valued novelty, rich decorative effects of lighting and colour, and the playful use of historical references. He explored aspects of the evocative power of mediaeval art in The Castle of Otranto, the first “Gothic” novel, which ties together the Middle Ages, fantasy and horror – ideas that are still with us today. A watercolour at Yale University shows the spectacular room designed for his most precious curiosities. For Walpole, it was a kind of shrine to the works he collected: historical documents and talismans to stir the imagination.
There was another side to Strawberry Hill, humbler but equally important to Walpole: his printing press, which was set up in 1757 and, with interruptions, remained in use until his death. Proud of his hobby, he took his most privileged guests to see it, and it became as well-known as his house. In the hierarchical and status-conscious 18th century, Walpole the gentleman, son of a prime minister and who would later inherit an earldom, sometimes affected to call himself a printer and bookseller: “I print much better than I write, and love my trade.” The press was staffed by a professional printer, with Walpole choosing the texts and acting as editor and proofreader.
Editions varied in size, as did the audiences for these works. The smallest was six copies of a book, intended for the private enjoyment of Walpole’s friends; other print runs extended to hundreds of copies and were sold through the London book trade. The Strawberry Hill Press quickly became famous, although Walpole had his doubts as to whether people read all these works, or saw them as curiosities and objects of financial speculation.
Anecdotes of Painting in England originated in Walpole’s purchase of part of the archive of the printmaker and antiquary George Vertue (1684–1756). Vertue’s unpublished manuscripts encompass a wide range of material. By contrast, Walpole’s interests were narrower and, for Anecdotes, he selected, rewrote and added to his source material. Following the general model begun with Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550, Anecdotes is a collection of biographies and patronage spanning the 13th to the mid-18th century. Organized reign-by-reign, it aims at a comprehensive and critical history, backed up by documentary evidence, oral history and firsthand observation. Walpole attempted to find authentic portraits of the leading artists to reproduce, including one of the famous painter Mary Beale (1633–99), whose substantial biography is rich with primary sources.
Walpole’s understanding of the problems involved in writing a national history of art – and, equally, his chauvinism – can be seen in the preface to the first volume: “In Italy, where the art of painting has been carried to an amazing degree of perfection, the lives of the painters have been written in numberless volumes, alone sufficient to compose a little library. … France, neither possessed of such masters, nor so hyperbolic in their diction, contrives however to supply by vanity what is wanting in either. … This country, which does not always err in vaunting its own productions, has not a single volume to show on the works of its painters. In truth, it has rarely given birth to a genius in that profession. Flanders and Holland have sent us the greatest men that we can boast. This very circumstance may with reason prejudice the reader against a work, the chief business of which must be to celebrate the arts of a country which has produced so few good artists. This objection is striking, that instead of calling it The Lives of English Painters, I have simply given it the title of Anecdotes of Painting in England.”
The Anecdotes were printed at Strawberry Hill between 1762 and 1771, however, the final volume, devoted to art in the 18th century, was not released until 1780, as Walpole feared his comments on his contemporaries might cause offence. A supplementary volume added a catalogue of printmakers working in England and, justly, a biography of Vertue.
The long process of printing the work was drawn out by accident: midway through producing the first two volumes, Walpole’s printer fled to escape the law, as did the next; a third printer completed the set and would remain. These events added to the usual complexity of such “hand-press” books, including changes to the text during printing, the resetting of type, the cutting-out of leaves and replacing them to correct errors, the use of differing stocks of paper and changes to the size of the edition. All of this can be seen in the Gallery’s set. During this period, it was not unusual for readers to create personalized copies of books, adding material that complemented the text. In this case, an early owner bound in a few examples of the original prints that Walpole’s artists had reproduced, creating a kind of commentary on model and copy.
Walpole’s self-invention as an arbiter of taste and the prestige of Strawberry Hill – both house and press – were inseparable from the reception of the Anecdotes. Walpole would add to and reprint the Anecdotes and later editions, and continuations were published through the 20th century, helping consolidate the history of art in England.
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