Magazine article The Spectator

Gothic Dream

Magazine article The Spectator

Gothic Dream

Article excerpt

Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill

Victoria & Albert Museum, until 4 July

'I waked one morning at the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate.'

Thus Horace Walpole related the origin of the first 'Gothic' novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765. While several sons of prime ministers have failed to live up to their fathers' ambitions, few have shown the imaginative sensitivity and dedication to a private imaginative world as the son of Sir Robert Walpole. If there was ever an opportunity to penetrate the mind of the most famous antiquary of the 18th century, it is in the exhibition Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, curated by Michael Snodin. After Walpole's death in 1797, his famous house at Twickenham passed through two careful owners who kept its contents intact, until in 1842 a famous sale took place, fulfilling Walpole's lifetime prediction that his collection would eventually be scattered. By this date writers such as William Hazlitt and Thomas Macaulay had damned him as a superficial dabbler in curiosities, although this did not deter crowds from attending the sale.

The exhibition and its catalogue (Yale University Press, £45) convincingly put the case in favour of Walpole. The objects he collected were, in some cases, not what he thought them to be, but what was in his imagination was more important. In other cases, his knowledge and eye led him to the genuine article. In his upside-down world, however, the truth contained in the false object can tell us more. He was creating a memory palace as a form of theatre, in which each room told a new chapter in the story, with decor to match. At the V&A, visitors can see an assembly of Walpole's collection such as will not be gathered again for many years, laid out room by Strawberry room, with most of the surviving representations of the Gothic fretwork and vaulting that framed them. Walpole explained how, from the modest front door, the effect was developed by a series of contrasts of light, colour and scale, as visitors climbed the stairs and were led from one room to another. …

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