Wednesday, 28 April 2010

English Eccentrics

With Horace Walpole's gothic mansion Strawberry Hill almost ready to reopen after the completion of its £9 million restoration project, the V&A in London is currently staging an exhibition of some of Walpole's most treasured objects.

Apart from his tireless activities as a politician, man of letters and waspish social commentator, Walpole was a keen antiquarian and collector; Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill (running until Jul 4) offers a tantalising sneak preview into his considerable collection of paintings, ceramics, miniatures and curiosities, as well as some personal possessions related to Strawberry Hill itself.

It's the first major exhibition on Walpole and a welcome look at his contribution to many different spheres of 18th-century society. His 'little gothic castle' (pictured below), which stands beside the Thames at Twickenham, and his outstanding collection of antiquities, became a tourist destination even during his own lifetime. Here we can see exquisite entrance tickets (printed at Walpole's private press) on which he has scrawled directions to the servants; nearby are several sketches by Rowlandson satirising the public obsession with antiquity, as symbolised by Strawberry Hill.

Other notable exhibits include the famous bust of Colley Cibber and the actual goldfish bowl into which Walpole's tabby cat, Selima, fell and drowned in 1747 (thus inspiring Gray's famous Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat Drowned In A Tub Of Goldfishes). Many objects are testament to Walpole's playful humour and imagination; we learn that when greeting some French guests Walpole delved into his collection and donned a pair of James I's gloves and a fake wooden cravat by Grinling Gibbons - the guests were too polite to say anything, imagining that this was simply an example of English eccentricity (both gloves and cravat are on display).

Being on the search for a decent collection of Walpole's letters I was a bit disappointed with the offering in the V&A shop, though Horace Walpole's Cat by Christopher Frayling has turned out to be a joy, skilfully using the stories of Walpole's pets (including two hapless dogs who met grisly deaths on the Grand Tour) to illuminate aspects of 18th-century culture. And if all this isn't encouragement enough, pick up the free exhibition guide and you get a voucher on the back page offering 2 for 1 entrance into Strawberry Hill when it opens on September 25 2010. What are you waiting for?

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