Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 7. His Anecdotes of Painting in England, Castle of Otranto and Historic Doubts on Richard III

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

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 7. His Anecdotes of Painting in England, Castle of Otranto and Historic Doubts on Richard III

The history of the growth of Walpole’s works is fully detailed in the Correspondence; and, apparently, nearly all his books were written at high pressure. He particularly notes how long a time was occupied in their production. He was a dabbler in literature from his early life. He wrote, in 1742, a sermon on painting for the amusement of his father, which was afterwards published in Ædes Walpolianœ, and he was continually writing occasional verses, a practice in which he persevered when he possessed a private printing-press. It was not, however, until 1753 that he may be said to have begun his literary career with the writing of some clever papers in The World, a periodical written by men of fashion for men of fashion. His first substantive work was A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, printed at the Strawberry hill press in 1758. It is of no great value as a bibliography, but, dealing as it does with a distinctive subject, is of occasional use as well as of some interest. The next work, Anecdotes of Painting in England, also printed at the Strawberry hill press in 1762, is the only one of Walpole’s works which has really held its position. It was reprinted several times by its author and twice re-edited. The publication originated in the purchase of Vertue’s valuable collections from his widow in 1756. Walpole, ten years before, had visited Vertue with the purpose of learning something about the MSS., of the existence of which he had previously heard. Vertue’s notes, which are now preserved at the British museum, are disjointed and difficult to decipher, and, therefore, it was much to Walpole’s credit that he was able to produce from them a useful book, which has been constantly reprinted. Unfortunately, although a competent connoisseur, he had not sufficient knowledge to enable him to write a satisfactory history of painting, and his editors had not sufficient courage to correct his errors at all thoroughly, for he had a wonderful craze respecting the historical value of some old pictures which he had bought and incorrectly described in his Anecdotes. It can hardly be doubted that the existence of Walpole’s book has prevented the publication of a complete and trustworthy history of English painting.

Walpole’s next works were The Castle of Otranto (1764–5) and The Mysterious Mother (1768). Byron affirmed that Walpole was “the father of the first romance and the last tragedy in our language,” and he praised highly both romance and tragedy; but very few modern readers are likely to agree with him. The Castle of Otranto was originally published as a translation from an Italian original which appeared at Naples in 1529; but, when success was assured, it was acknowledged by its author. Of this story, which has become a sort of a classic of English literature, though few now care to read it, some account has been given in an earlier chapter. The Mysterious Mother was printed at Strawberry hill in 1768; and, although Walpole perceived the unfitness for the stage of a tragedy with so repulsive a subject, he seems to have cherished a lingering hope of its production there, as he wrote an epilogue to it for Mrs. Clive to speak. In reading the play we see that the slowness of the action was of itself sufficient to exclude it from performance; for, even an eighteenth century audience could not be expected to sit out four acts of the ravings of a woman the cause of whose remorse and agony is not disclosed until the end of the fifth act. Fanny Burney, being on friendly terms with Walpole, was anxious to read the play; but, after reading it, she “felt a sort of indignant aversion rise” in her mind “against the wilful author of a story so horrible; all the entertainment and pleasure I had received from Mr. Walpole seemed extinguished.” Fanny’s friend Mr. Turbulent (Guiffardière) said: “Mr. Walpole has chosen a plan of which nothing can equal the abomination but the absurdity.”

Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III, written about the same time as The Mysterious Mother, offers a good example of Walpole’s literary work. He chose an interesting subject and treated it with spirit. He was not, however, prepared to undertake the necessary research, and thus laid himself open to much severe criticism. As two of his chief opponents were Milles, president, and Masters, a fellow, of the Society of Antiquaries, he resigned his fellowship of the society and swore hostility to most antiquaries, although a few, such as Cole and Gough, retained his favour. He never forgave his critics; but he had succumbed to their censures after a short fight.

Walpole’s own feelings respecting his literary productions were very mixed. He wrote to Lady Ossory (15 September, 1787):

  • I have several reasons for lamenting daily that I ever was author or editor.… Were I to recommence my life, and thought as I do now I do not believe that any consideration could induce me to be an author.… It is pride not humility, that is the source of my present sentiments. I have a great contempt for middling authors. We have not only betrayed want of genius but want of judgment.
  • These confessions have been treated as untrue, and as an affected condemnation of his writings. But this is unjust. He valued them as containing his own opinions, well expressed, on subjects which required elucidation; but he knew that they were not sound enough to bear learned criticism—and he quite sincerely repudiated his possession of special learning.

    From Horace Walpole’s we pass to some other names of renown in the form of literature in which he excelled.