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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 3. Strawberry Hill

The turning-point of his life was the acquisition of Strawberry hill. The building of the house, the planning of the gardens and the collection of his miscellaneous artistic curiosities soon became of absorbing interest to Walpole. Much might be said of him as a connoisseur; his taste has been strongly condemned; but, although he often made much of what was not of great importance, he gradually collected works of enduring value, and the dispersion of his property in 1842 came to be regarded as a historical event. Judge Hardinge was just when he wrote: “In his taste for architecture and vertu there were both whims and foppery, but still with fancy and genius.” The opening of the private press in 1757, the Officina Arbuteana or the Elzevirianum, as he called it, also, gave Walpole, with much additional work, a great deal of pleasure. He was enabled to print his light verses and present them to his distinguished visitors, and could make preparations for the printing of his projected works. Conway called his cousin “Elzevir Horace.” Walpole was very proud to be able to begin the work of his press by printing two unpublished odes by Gray.

Walpole’s head was so full of Strawberry hill, and he mentioned it so frequently in his letters, that he sent a particular description to Mann (12 June, 1753) with a drawing by Richard Bentley, “for it is uncomfortable in so intimate a correspondence as ours not to be exactly master of every spot where one another is writing, reading or sauntering.” He frequently produced guides to the “Castle”; but the fullest and final one is the Description of the Villa printed in 1784, and illustrated by many interesting plates. Walpole was very generous in allowing visitors to see his house; but these visitors were often very inconsiderate, and broke the rules he made. He wrote to George Montagu (3 September, 1763):

  • My house is full of people and has been so from the instant I breakfasted, and more are coming—in short I keep an inn: the sign “The Gothic Castle.” Since my gallery was finished I have not been in it a quarter of an hour together; my whole time is passed in giving tickets for seeing it and hiding myself while it is seen.
  • In December, 1791, Horace Walpole succeeded his nephew as earl of Orford. The prodigality, and then the madness, of the third earl forced his uncle to take upon himself the duties of a man of business, in order to keep the estate from dissolution. He had to undertake the management of the family estate, because there was no one else inclined to act. When he had put things into a better state, the earl’s sudden return to sanity threw everything into confusion again, as he was surrounded by a gang of sharpers. Horace Walpole developed unexpected business qualities, and, according to his own account, was able to reduce the mismanaged estate to order and solvency.

    In April, 1777, the nephew went mad again; and, on his recovery, in 1778, the uncle gave up the care of him. He was subjected to continual anxiety during the remainder of his nephew’s life; but he did not again take charge of the estate. When he himself came into the property, there was little left to manage. The picture gallery at Houghton, which Horace greatly loved, was sold to the empress Catharine II of Russia; and, before Lord Orford died, in December, 1791, he had become practically bankrupt. Horace Walpole had thus to take up an earldom which had fallen on evil days. He was not likely, in his old age, to accept with pleasure a title whose credit he could not hope to retrieve. He refused to enter the House of Lords; but, however much he might wish to do so, he could not relieve himself of the title. He died on 2 March, 1797, at the house in Berkeley square to which he had moved from Arlington street.

    A rapid glance through Walpole’s correspondence will soon reveal to us the secret of his life, which explains much for which he has been condemned. The moving principle of his conduct through life was love for, and pride in, his father. It is well, therefore, to insist upon the serious purpose of much of Horace’s career, and to call to mind how signally his outlook upon affairs was influenced by the proceedings of his family. He was proud of its antiquity and of its history from the conquest downwards; but he knew that no man of mark had emerged from it until his father came to do honour to his race; so, with that father, the pride of his son began and ended. Sir Robert Walpole’s enemies were his son’s, and those of the family who disgraced their name were obnoxious to him in consequence. In a time of great laxity, Margaret, countess of Orford, wife of the second earl, became specially notorious, and the disgracefulness of her conduct was a constant source of disgust to him. His elder brother Robert, the second earl, was little of a friend, and mention has already been made of the misconduct of his nephew George, the third earl (who succeeded to the title in 1751 and held it for forty years).