Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Along the Thames to Walpole's castle

From Richmond

to Strawberry Hill House to see Horace Walpole's collection reunited in neo-Gothic surroundings

was the first of our excursions on what turned out to be a four-day staycation (had been planning to visit friends on the Greek island of Spetses, but prices for flights to Athens had gone through the roof). Having read my Arts Desk colleague Sarah Kent on the new exhibition, and with happy memories of what happened when Houghton Hall's dispersed collection - much of it sold by Horace's unbalanced nephew to Catherine the Great - came home, I thought it would make a jolly day out.

The weather helped - the most serene, sharp and perfect of Autumn days; we ate our lunch on a bench by the river at Richmond, and this was the view above our heads. Then we crossed the noble bridge and walked parallel to Ham House on the other side. It's hidden by trees, but that only makes the perspective with not a building in sight the more naturally beautiful.

Various trees framed the river at low tide

with sundry old boats and barges glinting through the leaves.

Architecturally, it's a string of pearls. While the river near home has grand houses along Chiswick Mall, none is as fine as Marble Hill House, the Palladian villa commissioned by Henrietta Howard, mistress of the then-future George II, and completed in 1729.

Until you reach the church at Twickenham,

the fine houses and grounds accumulate.

This is more like the Chiswick legacy, a home for an admiral.

No time, alas, to pause for homage to Pope at the church, but onwards to our exhibition slot at Strawberry Hill. Unfortunately the Thames Path goes inwards, along a busy road, but once at Walpole's retreat, the rusticity is resumed, with only the planes roaring overhead on their way to or from Heathrow to break the illusion.

In 1750, having rented a 'little play-thing-house' known as Strawberry Hill Shot, Horace Walpole (1717-97) wrote to his distant cousin and long-term correspondent Sir Horace Mann, 'I am going to build a little Gothic castle...If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you' (I'm working my way through the somewhat disordered and patchy Everyman collection of his letters). The project grew, like Topsy, with additions made up to 1772, a combination - as now it still seems - of gallery and cosy home, full of 'gloomth' (Walpole's own portmanteau word): 'I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury'. With 'battlements for a roof', as he found authorised in Deuteronomy, Walpole made sure that the south facade would be 'the only side...at all regular'.

I had to photograph its upper half only, because in the first of many annoyances about the exhibition, and the general management of a house admittedly well restored, a tea-room marquee currently blots out an unobstructed view of the south front. From this point on, with no photography permitted within the house, I look elsewhere, including Strawberry Hill House's current management, for images. I trust 'fair use' applies for the diverse sources.

Walpole thought the hall and staircase 'the most particular and chief beauty of the castle'. But that was before John Chute designed the Library with details copied from Gothic tombs in Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, illustrated here in 1781 by Edward Edwards

and then the Gallery, with its fan vaulting modelled on Henry VII's chapel, also in Westminster Abbey. 'Gilders, carvers, upholsterers and picture-cleaners are labouring at their several forges, and I do not love to trust a hammer or a brush without my own supervisal,' Walpole wrote in July 1763, a month before the gallery was completed.

The collection comes nowhere near the masterpieces of Houghton Hall (many now in St Petersburg's Hermitage), but the ensemble is fine. Printing, including 3D for a Gibbons frame, has been useful to fill in some of the gaps.

One gets the sense that Walpole was more interested in human idiosyncrasy as represented by the portrait than by great paintings (or maybe he couldn't afford those, though he did buy a superb Van Dyck double portrait for a remarkably low price). There are wonderful miniatures, though the bad exhibition lighting, poor throughout the house, prevents one from seeing them properly. Walpole didn't rate Hilliard as highly as the Olivers, but nonetheless this, of Sir Francis Drake, is a gem of the cabinet.

Noted is a penchant for beautiful young men, not least this boy as shepherd by Peter Lely

and Walpole's features were delicate. I love the portraits Rosalba Carriera painted of him and his cousin Francis Seymour Conway, Earl of Hertford, whom he met on his Grand Tour.

His Strawberry Hill parties were a byword in extravagance, though he seems to have been torn between his curiosity about people and the need for a quiet, solitary life. The festino for a party including many French visitors in May 1769 is briefly described in a celebrated letter: 'At the gates of the castle I received them, dressed in the cravat of Gibbons's carving,

and a pair of gloves embroidered to the elbows that had belonged to James I.'

In addition, celebratory verses were printed on the Strawberry Hill press, their distribution inaugurated by 'French horns and clarionets'. 'In the evening we walked, had tea, coffee, and lemonade in the Gallery, which was illuminated with a thousand, or thirty candles, I forget which, and played at whisk and loo till midnight. Then there was a cold supper, and at one the company returned to town, saluted by fifty nightingales, who, as tenants of the manor, came to do honour to their lord...'

On the feminine side there is exquisite beauty in the collection's signature painting of the Ladies Waldegrave by Reynolds

and on the other hand - an odd purchase - Hogarth's portrait of the triple murderer Sarah Malcolm in her cell before execution. Hogarth made a fortune out of prints of this subject.

After that, some air. I can't say I entirely enjoyed the experience: the volunteer guides in every room just would not let you alone with your catalogue. I like to talk to them, but only if I have something to ask; these ones would collar you and insist you look at this or that. Way too intrusive. I only got away with private viewing in the bigger rooms where they were already having rather banal-sounding conversations with other members of the public.

And so, into the garden, which is no longer what Walpole wanted, something 'riant, and the gaiety of nature' in opposition to 'the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals' imprinted on the house; a garden, he insisted, could not be Gothic. The lawns run into the territory of the adjoining St Mary's College, once part of the University of London, now St Mary's University. Its buildings look more like a hospital with a bit of grass in front, though the shell bench in what Walpole called his 'perfect Paphos' remains (or is it a copy? Anyway, the paint is peeling).

We wandered round the college demesne, the cries of the sporty reminding us that this is the demesne of rugger buggers. The chapel, though, is interesting, in extreme contrast to the house. Built in 1962-3 above the university library, its brick model is Albi Cathedral. The Sutherlandesque reredos is in fact by Constance Stubbs

and  I like the glass by by the studios of  Gabriel Loire, master glazier of Chartres Cathedral. This is the west window.

After a brief glimpse at Walpole's Chapel in the Woods, with poor Victorian muralling by way of overlay, we made our way back. Kew was a familiar destination for the next bright autumn afternoon, and what remains most vividly with me is the autumnal smells rising from the ground in the bosky groves. Out in the sunlight it was once again warm, and the delights began with the temple ensemble just inside the Victoria Gate.

I'd already admired the renovated Temperate House and the new dragons on the Pagoda on an October visit, and J was suitably impressed. We took a spin around the upper walkway, where the harmony between glass and iron above

and greenery from Australasia below

was most apparent. If the great height of many of the plants in the pre-renovated building has now been much reduced, the sense of light and space is overwhelmingly impressive.

Then to the pagoda

and its guardians.

The lower denizens are carved in cedar, like these three above and below; those higher up were achieved by more 3D printing.

On to the Japanese landscape around the Chokushi-Mon (Japanese Gateway), with live denizens this time. The purple berries behind them belong to Callicarpa japonica.

The ailing but content other half then made his way back to the cafe while I took a semi-ritual route, down to the great red oak by the river opposite Syon House, tantalisingly labelled Quercus X benderi Q. coccinea x Q. rubra,

enjoyed the deciduous firs by the lake

and the beech grove

before discovering rather two many mechanics being set up for the annual, moneymaking festival of light and heading back to the Victoria Gate via the Palm House, always vividly lit at sunset - no artificial lighting can surpass this -

and the view across to what's now called 'Museum No. 1'. Such resources on the doorstep.


Susan said...

You certainly seem to have had perfect weather for your outings, and, indeed, how nice it is sometimes to discover/rediscover what’s in your own back yard.

David said...

Thought you might have been intrigued by Walpole. Selected reading of his letters is a real tonic.

David Damant said...

The business of guides to inform you about rooms in the houses visited is very tedious as you indicate. Half of what they tell you you know already, and the other half is of no interest. As for the pictures from Houghton sadly sold, I remember that some years ago the then Marquis ( said to be the most handsome man in England) paid a formal visit to the Hermitage to see the pictures that had been sold. I knew his young assistant, and he reported that for their stay in Leningrad for the period of Lord Cholmondeley's visit it was as if the Russian revolution had never occured, so grand and deferential was his reception

Susan said...

I’ll confess I was so dazzled by your photographs of outdoor scenery that I paid less attention to Walpole. But on poking around a bit now, I understand why you describe selected reading of his letters as a tonic. Here’s a quotation of his from a letter I enjoyed a propos of the out-of-doors: “The way to ensure summer in England is to have it framed and glazed in a comfortable room.”

David said...

Yes, Sue, that's very typical. I am currently enjoying his portraits of friends, acquaintances and animals (he adored dogs and was bequeathed an old French lady friend's aggressive creature Tonton, yielding some amusing anthropomorphic descriptions).

Of course, Sir David, though Horace W might be surprised to find his house still going and so lavishly restored, he did not envisage a time when his own collection would be broken up in a sale (why didn't he bequeath it, I wonder). Of course the Hermitage and all the major Russian palaces were also lovingly preserved or restored - the Amber Room! - as if the Russian revolution had never occurred, though they got a fresh injection of expensive attention once the post-Soviets realised how much more they could make out of tourism.

Willym said...

I had read about the exhibition in the Guardian and was thinking that it would be a fine thing to see. It sounds like you had some doubts as did the reviewer. But as always your words and photos made it a thing of great interest.

As a docent I have always thought it best to simply make visitors aware that I am there should they have questions or need assistance. And never interrupt a visitor when they are contemplating a work.

David said...

Agreed. I usually smile at the person in the room and hope to be left in peace unless I have a question. The National Trust is fussy; I found the guides at Hatfield House, though, got it exactly right and were sufficiently relaxed that one wanted to chat occasionally.

Come! So many good things on in London at the moment. But I hear you are Portugal bound.

Josie Holford said...

A great travelogue of a most jolly day out complete with rugger buggers and intrusive docents. Don't know about growing like Topsy any more. Great day out. Love "gloomth" and who knew Deuteronomy dictated architectural detail. Had to go and look that one up - "When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence." Could make for a useful riposte when OT Bible thumpers are banging on about morality.

David said...

Excellent. You mean that Topsy is no longer a familiar term of reference? I agree and might take it out.