Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Prospect of Vapourland

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, c. 1756-7

You have to love Horace Walpole - aesthete, antiquary, art historian, man of letters, man of enthusiasms, inventor of the Gothic novel and designer of the extraordinary house at Strawberry Hill.  Simon Schama has a good story in Landscape and Memory about the young Walpole seeking out picturesque scenery in the Alps.  Walpole wrote, "I had brought with me a little black spaniel of King Charles’s breed, but the prettiest, fattest, dearest creature! I had let it out of the chaise for the air, and it was waddling along, close to the head of the horses, on top of one of the highest Alps, by the side of a wood of firs. There darted out a young wolf, seized poor Tory by the throat, and before we could possibly prevent it, sprung up the side of the rock and carried him off."  As Schama says, 'Walpole was the son of the formidable Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, and until the lamentable encounter with the wolf had obviously enjoyed having a silk-eared, sycophantic ‘Tory’ in his lap.'

Tory wasn’t the only pet of Walpole’s that met a sticky end. When his cat drowned in a goldfish bowl it prompted Thomas Gray, Walpole’s traveling companion in the Alps, to write his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ (1748):

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers, that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below…

When Selima reached out for a fish she ‘tumbled headlong in. Eight times emerging from the flood / She mewed to every watry god, Some speedy aid to send.’ But all in vain. And thus Gray warned ‘ye beauties’ (women!) ‘not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes / And heedless hearts is lawful prize; Nor all that glisters gold.’

This Chinese vase can be seen in a wonderful exhibition currently showing at the V&A, along with other items from Walpole's collection: Renaissance maiolica, medieval coins, a French suit of armour, an Italian shield, old master paintings, portait miniatures (he was an expert on these), a sixteenth century book of swan marks, Cardinal Wolsey's hat, Dr Dee's mirror, a lock of Mary Tudor's hair and a carved limewood cravat which Walpole wore, together with the 'gloves of James I', to greet a party of guests to Strawberry Hill in 1769.  Some exhibits reminded me of objects I've considered on this blog before.  For example, there were two views of Strawberry Hill by Paul Sandby, part of a Sheldon tapestry, and a cup and saucer in the style of Wedgwood's Green Frog Service with delicate painted views of Richmond Castle, the Mausoleum at Castle Howard and Stoke Gifford in Gloucestershire.  Walpole, like Bruce Chatwin, loved the stories connected with objects.  It's easy to see how desirable, for example, he would have found Alexander Pope's own copy of The Iliad, the very book used to make Pope's celebrated translation.  This small volume has a sketch on the flyleaf drawn by the poet himself, showing Twickenham seen from Pope's Grotto.

Last week I wrote about landscapes viewed from a specific house, where the real subject of the painting is the house itself.  Walpole commissioned sketches of this kind, including a striking View from the Holbein Chamber by Joseph Charles Barrow, in which two figures are seen approaching through a strange tunnel of trees, like characters in a Gothic novel.  However, the most unusual painting in the exhibition is a dream landscape in which a distant hill takes on the form of a lion and a nearby tree is full of snakes. Painted in 1759 by Walpole's friend Richard Bentley, who helped design the Gothick rooms of Strawberry Hill, its title is A Prospect of Vapourland.

Johann Heinrich M√ľntz, Strawberry Hill, c. 1755-59

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