‘Walpolooza’ celebration marks Horace Walpole’s 300th birthday

Portrait of Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole wrote extensively, producing fiction, nonfiction, verse, and thousands of letters covering a wide variety of subjects. He is pictured here in a 1757 print.

Horace Walpole — the 18th-century English man of letters — wrote to his friend and longtime correspondent Horace Mann, British envoy to Florence, on Sept. 7, 1775 about the outbreak of war between Great Britain and its American colonies.

You will on your side not be surprised that I am what I always was, a zealot for liberty in every part of the globe, and consequently that I most heartily wish success to the Americans,” Walpole wrote. “They have hitherto not made one blunder; and the administration have made a thousand, besides the two capital ones of first provoking, and then of uniting the colonies.”

Walpole predicted a long war with an unfavorable outcome for Britain whether or not it triumphed on the battlefield.

If England prevails, English and American liberty is at an end!” wrote the Whig politician. “If the colonies prevail, our commerce is gone — and if at last we negotiate, they will neither forgive nor give us our former advantages.”

A copy of this letter, transcribed by Walpole, resides at Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut. It is among the library’s extensive collection of 18th-century material, including Walpole’s correspondence, manuscripts, books, artwork, and furniture.

Scholars value Walpole for his literary style and his insights into 18th-century events, art, and people. Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, B.A. 1918, a long-time member of the Yale Corporation, devoted his life to reviving Walpole’s reputation as a key figure of the British 18th century.

At their home in Farmington, Lewis and his wife, Annie Burr Auchincloss, built and curated an unrivaled collection of books (many from Walpole’s own library), manuscripts, and prints and drawings, from or related to Horace Walpole and his circle, as well as works of art and “antiquities” Walpole once owned and used to adorn his iconic gothic revival house, Strawberry Hill

In addition, the couple spearheaded and funded a decades-long collaboration with the Yale University Press to edit, annotate, and publish Walpole’s voluminous correspondence. On Lewis’s death in 1979, the collections of Walpoliana and related materials, along with his home on 14 acres in Farmington, and funds to sustain it all, were bequeathed to Yale to become a center for research and scholarship on the 18th century

Sept. 24 marked the 300th anniversary of Walpole’s birth. To honor his tercentenary, the Lewis Walpole Library has launched “Walpolooza” — a yearlong celebration, including birthday festivities, an exhibition, seminars, panel discussions, and a dramatic performance.

In marking Horace Walpole’s 300th birthday, we celebrate a major figure in the study of the 18th century, especially the British 18th century” said Nicole Bouché, the W. S. Lewis Librarian & Executive Director of the Library. “It is an opportunity to highlight the library’s extraordinary collection, share its unique history, and inspire scholarly engagement with Horace Walpole’s life and times.”

Writer, printer, and prolific correspondent

Walpole was born in London on Sept. 24, 1717, the third and youngest son of Robert Walpole, first and longest serving prime minister of Great Britain, who held the office from 1721 to 1742.

His life followed “the eighteenth-century upper class pattern: Eton, King’s [College, Cambridge], the Grand Tour, Parliament, a town house, a country house, a round of expensive diversions with other rulers of the first British Empire,” Lewis wrote in his memoir, “Collector’s Progress.” And though he lived an aristocratic life, Walpole also had sympathy for society’s underdogs. A member of Parliament for 13 years, he was among the first British politicians to openly oppose the slave trade on moral grounds.

Walpole’s lifestyle was made possible by the sinecures at the Exchequer and the Customs that his father, as prime minister, had secured for him, which provided Walpole with both ample time and income to pursue his many interests.

Chief among these was Strawberry Hill, a country home that he lovingly transformed from a cottage into a Gothic Revival villa with towers, battlements, and elaborately decorated interiors.

It is a little play-thing-house that I got out of Mrs[.] Chenevix’s shop, and it is the prettiest bauble you ever saw,” Walpole wrote to a friend about his 30-room “little Gothic castle” on five acres in Twickenham, London. (Mrs. Chenevix’s shop was a famous London toy store, according to “The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence.”)

At Strawberry Hill, Walpole also installed one of the earliest private presses in England and printed first editions of many of his own works as well as works by friends and associates, such as the poet Thomas Gray.

Painting of Walpole's home, Strawberry Hill.
Walpole transformed his country home, Strawberry Hill, from a cottage into a Gothic Revival villa with towers, battlements, and elaborately decorated interiors. This is a view of the home from the south by Swiss artist Johann Heinrich Müntz.

He wrote extensively, producing fiction, nonfiction, verse, and thousands of letters. His published works include “The Castle of Otranto” (1764), widely regarded as the first gothic novel; “The Mysterious Mother” (1768), a tragedy in verse; and “Historic Doubts” (1768), a defense of the reign of King Richard III, whose reputation had been maligned in the works of Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More. Walpole also produced the five-volume “Anecdotes of Painting in England” (1762), the two-volume “Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England” (1758), and “On Modern Gardening” (1780), a seminal work on English landscape and garden design, in addition to other works.

But it is Walpole’s letters that are generally considered his crowning literary achievement, and his correspondence overall — about 7,000 letters to and from him are known to exist — is a rich resource on a wide variety of subjects with many correspondents. (“Walpole had a gift for friendship,” Lewis wrote.)

Walpole’s letters can be read as entertainment and enjoyed as works of art even if one knows little about the people and events that appear in them,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography, “One Man’s Education.” “They may also be treated as a major for study of the eighteenth century. They were written to inform and divert his correspondents, but Walpole also had a wider audience in mind, posterity, ourselves.”

Walpole discussed the importance of correspondence as a written record of the times in a 1761 letter to Sir David Dalrymple, a Scottish lawyer and historian: “Nothing gives so just an idea of an age as genuine letters; nay, history waits for its last seal from them.”

Walpole, the fourth Earl of Orford, died on March 2, 1797, aged 80. His heirs sold his Strawberry Hill collection at auction in 1842. The house remained in family hands until the end of the 19th century.

Walpolooza’

The tercentenary celebration kicked off in Sept. 22-24 with a weekend of birthday festivities at Strawberry Hill, in collaboration with The Strawberry Hill Trust, which has recently restored the house and reopened it to the public. On Sept. 23, some 80 current and former Lewis Walpole Library research fellows, as well as other U.K. and European-based friends and affiliates of the Lewis Walpole Library, gathered for a day of tours, presentations, and a celebratory luncheon. The celebration moved to Farmington on Sept. 28 with a lawn party on the library’s grounds featuring readings of Horace Walpole's letters, period music by Grand Harmonie, and tours.

Walpolooza events continued on Oct. 20 with the opening of the library’s featured exhibition for the year, “Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole.” The exhibition, which draws on the full range of the library’s collections, is a collaboration between the library; Steven Pinus, the Bradford Durfee Professor of History; and graduate students. It presents conflicting visions of empire in the 18th century through the domains of political economy, diplomacy, slavery, and indigenous peoples. 

Lewis Walpole Library and barn
The Lewis Walpole Library is located in Farmington, Connecticut, in several 18-century buildings on a 14-acre campus.

Justin Brooks, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and a co-curator of “Global Encounters and the Archives,” will give a talk about the exhibition, at the library, the evening of Nov. 1. The exhibition itself will be on view and open to the public until March 2018.

Walpolooza travels to the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) on Oct. 26 when former Lewis Walpole Library Fellow George Haggerty, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California-Riverside, who is writing a biography of Walpole, opens a two-day conference on historical biography and archival research with his keynote lecture, “The Many Lives of Horace Walpole.” A public roundtable discussion the next afternoon at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library will examine the challenges of queer historical biography and archival research.

Then in November, Jonathan Kramnick, the Maynard Mack Professor of English, will lead a “Literary Walpole Weekend” mini-conference in Farmington, Nov. 9-10, focused on Walpole’s novel, “Castle of Otranto,” and his other writings.

The library will sponsor a conference Feb. 9-10, at the Graduate Club in New Haven, that is inspired by the “Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole” exhibition, which will feature presentations on new archival-based research on Britain’s global empire in the 18th century.

Finally, on May 2, the YCBA will host a staged reading of Walpole’s controversial play, “The Mysterious Mother,” a tale of incest and intrigue that Walpole initially circulated only among his friends, and never permitted it to be performed during his lifetime except as a private theatrical. Directed by Misty G. Anderson, the Lindsay Young Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, the on-book performance will be followed on May 3 by a scholarly symposium, also hosted at the YCBA.  

In addition to the slate of events, the library has launched a blog, “Horace Walpole at 300,” featuring weekly posts highlighting items from the library’s collection of Walpoliana.

Detailed information and updates on events are available on the library’s website.

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