Horace Walpole’s Description of the Villa at Strawberry Hill Nicolas Barker

The Roxburghe Club, pp.241, 395

When I became a cub reporter on the Times in 1963 (the front page was still covered with small-ads), an old sweat in the newsroom gave me two pieces of advice. The first was:

Don’t get too proficient at shorthand. If you do, you’ll find yourself in a stuffy courtroom, recording the proceedings verbatim.

The second was:

Never describe any incident as ‘unique’ or say it is the first time it has happened. If you do, sure as eggs is eggs, a reader will write in to point out an identical occurrence in the near or distant past.

He added:

And don’t suggest that such-and-such will never happen again. If you do, it will inevitably happen again before you can say ‘Déjà vu!’.

I followed the first part of the veteran’s advice to the letter — or to the squiggle, one might say. I attended a shorthand class at Miss Mitchell’s Secretariat in Chancery Lane. My fellow pupils were mostly charming debs, who would arrive late because of the party they had been to the night before. I never did master shorthand; I remember Scottish Miss Mitchell’s severe admonishment that ‘Your “f” hook is a wee bitty large, Bevis.’ I never languished in a stuffy courtroom. But, alas, I forgot the last part of the old newsman’s advice.

Last Christmas, when reviewing the year’s art books, I heaped praise on Michael Snodin’s book, Horace Walpole’s Straw- berry Hill, about that ‘delectable Gothick meringue of a house’. Incautiously, I added: ‘I do not think another book on the subject will ever be needed.’ Fatal!

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Not even six months have elapsed, and now here is a magnificent facsimile of Horace Walpole’s own catalogue of Strawberry Hill and its variegated contents — the copy copied is that which was extra-illustrated for Walpole’s deputy, Charles Bedford, now in the collection of Lord Waldegrave of North Hill.

The book is produced by the Roxburghe Club, of which William Waldegrave is a member. It is perhaps the most exclusive club one can belong to — more so than White’s, Boodle’s, Pratt’s or the Athenaeum. It was founded in 1812 by a group of patrician bibliophiles after the sale of the bankrupt Duke of Roxburghe’s collection, the first English sale at which a book was sold for more than £1,000 (the Valdorfer Boccaccio, 1471, bought by the Marquess of Blandford for £2,260). The first president was the second Lord Spencer, but the idea of the Club came from the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, author of Bibliomania (1809).

The club is restricted to 40 members. The present membership includes a French prince, 13 peers (Waldegrave among them), three North American members and one South American member. They tend to be inheritors or custodians of important libraries. They meet for dinner, normally combined with a visit to a library, once a year in June: the ‘anniversary dinner’, that is, of the Roxburghe sale. There is also a ‘business’ dinner in the autumn. Members are expected to publish a book to be presented to each of their fellow members. Every member has his or her name printed in red in his or her copy; a limited number of extra copies is issued for sale — of which the book under review is one. The price may seem exorbitant; but you can be pretty sure that your copy, in its half-morocco binding, will become a bibliophile’s treasure. This facsimile is the copycat’s whiskers.

In the 1970s I used sometimes to sit next to William Waldegrave at the Beefsteak Club: he was a very engaging lunch companion. He is an intellectual grandee — a Fellow of All Souls and now Provost of Eton; but, perhaps partly for that reason and partly because he is too nice and too honest, he never quite reached the top in politics. He took a lot of tabloid stick for declaring that politicians sometimes have to tell lies. That is obviously true of any party politician, obliged to toe the party line, inevitably sometimes against his private convictions; but it was perhaps not awfully politic to say so.

How does Waldegrave come to be in possession of the copy that has been facsimile’d? In a preface, he gives the answer: Walpole left Strawberry Hill and its contents, after a life interest (which she surrendered early) for Anne Damer the sculptor, granddaughter of his mother’s sister Charlotte, and daughter of his beloved friend Henry Conway, to the Waldegraves.

Why? Most obviously, Waldegrave thinks, because of Walpole’s ‘affection for his beautiful and formidable niece Maria’, the illegitimate daughter of his brother Edward by a milliner. Walpole claimed credit for Maria’s marriage to James, second Earl Waldegrave. Besides the family link there was a political one: Horace Walpole had a soft spot for the Stuarts, and the Waldegraves had royal Stuart blood via Arabella Churchill, mistress of James II, whose daughter by the king was married off to the first Lord Waldegrave.

The facsimile is masterfully introduced by the great bookman Nicolas Barker, himself a member of the Roxburghe Club, and the book is superbly illustrated. Walpole was one of those childless bachelors who, as he did not and possibly could not perpetuate himself in the flesh, sought immortality through his buildings, his collections and the record of them on paper. He was a scattergun collector, but one of the utmost discrimination; and at Strawberry Hill, there was a niche for everything: of nothing could one have said what the Queen says of a carved ostrich egg from Samoa in Alan Bennett’s play A Question of Attribution: ‘This . . . hasn’t quite found its place yet.’

What was specially laudable about Walpole’s taste was that he did not just confine his collection to antiques: he had the wit to realise that history is a continuum and that some of the things being made in his own time would one day be prized. So, for example, he acquired Chelsea porcelain and Bow porcelain, neither of which was manufactured before the l740s.

His method of cataloguing is no dryasdust system; what he writes down is very much what you would imagine his telling a friend or one of the connoisseurs who asked to be shown round the house. It is not a bald list or a Pevsner-like categorisation, but vividly conversational and gossipy, with eccentric and witty asides. A random sample gives the flavour:

A sea-piece; by Backhuysen: very good.

Madame la marquise du Deffand and the duchesse de Choiseul giving her a doll, which the former who was blind, holds out her hands to receive; alluding to her calling the duchesse Grande Maman. Every part of the room is exactly represented, and madame du Deffand most exactly like, which the duchesse is not; by M. Carmontel, a gentleman belonging to the duke of Orleans.

A print by Bartolozzi of Giorgiana Spencer duchess of Devonshire, from the drawing of lady Diana Beauclerc, in a frame with Wedgwood’s cameos, and two flies engraved and painted by Hill.

A view of the church of Stokepogeys in Buckinghamshire; the moon shining on Mr Gray’s tomb in the church-yard; by Baron; a present from sir Edward Walpole.

An allegoric washed drawing of Christina of Pisa, writing her Cité des Dames, from an illumination in the library of the king of France.

View of the hotel de Carnavalet; where madame de Sevigné lived, in la rue Coulture St. Catherine, at Paris; built by Du Cerceau; painted by Raguenet.

A flower, in paper mosaic, executed by Mrs. Delany, the inventress, who between the seventieth and eightieth years of her age executed 500 plants in this manner. 

This book is not so much a pendant to the one by Snodin that I praised to the skies last Christmas, as a mighty buttress to it. (On second thoughts, perhaps that should be put the other way round, for Horace Walpole’s Description is the basis of Snodin’s work.) One small reservation about the facsimile: some of the pages of sepia handwriting towards the end of the book have reproduced very faintly — but then, I imagine they are faint in the original. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated