The creepy genius of a gothic giant – Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill review
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2018-10-19 Size:
Horace Walpole was an aesthetic rebel against convention a century……

A detail from Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Horace Walpole’s nieces, 1781.

Horace Walpole was an aesthetic rebel against convention a century ahead of Oscar Wilde. He built himself Strawberry Hill, a house that aped the “barbaric” middle ages, then, while daydreaming among its pointy arches, fan vaulting and spooky niches, got the idea for The Castle of Otranto, the first modern work of horror fiction, which still influences every haunted-house story. As the inventor of modern gothic he is a giant of modern culture. Now he has returned to haunt the house he built.

The custodians of Walpole’s seismic home have brought back, from collections all over the world, the paintings, sculptures and surreal objects that originally decorated it and were sadly dispersed after his death. Installed for a few months in their original locations in his house, Walpole’s masterpieces and curiosities paint a picture not just of Strawberry Hill in its original splendour but the strange and fertile mind that created it.

‘Little gothic castle’ … Walpole’s home, Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham.

At times in this intimate and revealing encounter, Walpole really does seem to have come back as a ghost. In one monastic chamber, a powdery face suddenly materialises on a wall, soft and ethereal, as if it could melt into mist at any second. The spectre is wearing feathery ermine. It is, in fact, a portrait by Rosalba Carriera, one of the few women to have had an art career in 18th-century Europe. Walpole posed for her in Venice in about 1741. He was a young aristocrat on his grand tour, famous not in his own right but for being the son of the fearsomely powerful, notoriously corrupt politician Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister. Horace Walpole always defended his father’s memory, yet in The Castle of Otranto the insignificant son of a terrifying father is crushed to a pulp when a giant helmet falls on him.

If Walpole has come back as a ghost, so has his cat. When his pet tabby fell into a tub while trying to catch goldfish and drowned, Walpole commissioned his friend Thomas Gray to write a poem in its memory. Gray describes, in his Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes, how the doomed pussy balanced

on a lofty vase’s side,

Where China’s gayest art had dyed

The azure flowers that blow

Portrait of a Young Man as a Shepherd, circa 1658-60, by Peter Lely.

This exhibition includes the actual Chinese porcelain tub. It stands in the hall, in all its blue and white beauty. The tub is a reminder of yet another of Walpole’s inventions. He was at the forefront not just of a new sympathy for animals and nature but a cult of inner feeling. In others words, he was an architect of Romanticism. But what was his true soul? This man of feeling is oddly elusive. He got Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of his three nieces but never had children of his own – not even illegitimate ones, and this in the libertine Georgian age.

This exhibition gets us tantalisingly close to Walpole’s true identity. In his bedroom, he kept one of his favourite paintings, a sensual portrait of a good-looking young man posing as a shepherd. It has returned there for this exhibition. The curators think his passion for this painting by Sir Peter Lely hints powerfully at his being gay. So do his cherished portraits of his male friends, some of whom were homosexual and even in long-term, unconcealed same-sex relationships.

In fact, the mystery is why Walpole felt a need for mystery. He lived in the Enlightenment, not the Victorian age. So perhaps he didn’t want to be just one thing. The gothic gave him a realm of infinite play-acting and perverse imagining. This is a storyteller’s art collection, full of objects to feed the fancy. He could project himself into other selves, in other times, as he contemplated his curios. One of the most atmospheric things here is a clock Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn as a love token. Their initials are engraved on the weights. Sex and death haunt this gothic object, which ticks with ghastly perfection.

Roman eagle, first century AD.

This memento belonging to a beheaded queen is truly spooky. So is a broad, red, 500-year-old hat that probably belonged – and according to Walpole, definitely did – to Cardinal Wolsey, another victim of the Tudor age. Yet Walpole could also drag himself out of historical reveries to admire the contemporary art of his own day. He worshipped William Hogarth even though this scabrous satirist attacked his father. In fact, one of the paintings on show is a copy of Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, which satirised the corruption of Robert Walpole by mocking him as a master criminal.

The most gothic painting here, however, is Hogarth’s portrait of a condemned woman. He visited the convicted murderer Sarah Malcolm in her cell and painted a sympathetic record of her. It’s a meditation on the extremes of being human, a portrait of the lost. Hogarth goes from comedy to tragedy, and Walpole follows him into that bedlam. This man born in the age of reason saw the value of the irrational, which is why he shapes our secrets so pervasively.

I was lucky enough to witness the installation of one of Walpole’s most precious things, an ancient Roman eagle found in the Baths of Caracalla. Its mighty taloned shape cast a monstrous shadow as it was put in place under glaring work lights. Luckily, no one got crushed.

Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill, London, 20 October until 24 February

[Editor] 张艳