The Pleasures of Horace Walpole

Sean Silver
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

The last decade has seen a striking increase in the number of studies bearing directly on Horace Walpole’s (1717–97) Strawberry Hill—his neo-Gothic villa in Twickenham by the Thames. Roughly twelve years ago, the Strawberry Hill Trust took over the house from St. Mary’s University; under the direction of curator Michael Snodin, a diverse group of conservators, architects, and historians has worked to return the house to something approaching its historical magnificence. Walpole is important to students of the eighteenth century because of his extensive, painstaking correspondence, which he himself intended as the mirror of his age. Walpole had moreover built the house in part to display a striking collection of antiquarian artifacts, miniatures, classical art, medals, chinoiserie, and painting, which (taken together) hold a mirror to the taste of the moment. It is however the central fact of Walpole studies that Walpole’s work was dispersed by auction roughly half a century after his death. It took the life-long obsession of Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis to piece together what remained of Walpole’s former possessions, donating letters and objects to the library that now bears both of their names. Just as Walpole had himself assembled a minor academy in his own house (including at various times painters, engravers, architects, artists, and writers), so too the Yale-based Lewis Walpole Library (LWL) has opened its doors to a diverse range of fellows and students of eighteenth-century arts; just as Walpole labored to make public his own antiquities through an in-house press (by some accounts, the first such private publishing house) so too the LWL has led the way in digitizing its collection of prints, manuscripts, letters, and printed material, making them freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Taken together, then, the new opportunities of access to house and to collection has meant a flurry of new studies, each differently addressing Walpole in the environment he crafted for himself. Walpole would, I think, take great pleasure in observing the willing labor inspired by his life and work.

Among the essays emerging at this confluence of events is Marion Harney’s Place-making for the Imagination: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill (Ashgate, 2014). Harney’s monograph develops close readings of the house and grounds through a wide-ranging review of Walpole’s writings—some of which have come to light only in the last burst of renewed interest. The book’s central conceit, the way that it connects material history to cultural moment, is to treat Strawberry Hill as an experiment in an aesthetic theory inherited from Joseph Addison. Appearing in 11 consecutive issues of The Spectator, Addison’s 1712 treatise entitled “The Pleasures of the Imagination” was a critical lynchpin in eighteenth-century arts because it wedded a seemingly intuitive epistemology to a rudimentary aesthetics. This is what Harney means by “place-making for the imagination”; though the book has no particular theoretical investment in “place-making,” a concept which has received a great deal of recent attention in the phenomenological approach to how we move and dwell in space, her concept of “imagination” is explicitly and repeatedly wedded to Addison’s remarks. Making this connection explicit is, indeed, the labor of much of the book’s first chapter, which attaches Addisonian pleasure to the particular affordances of the Gothic as Walpole put it in practice.

Addison’s essay was very much of its moment. First penned while at Oxford, but elaborated when it saw its way into print, Addison’s theory of the intellect is explicitly indebed to John Locke’s then-new Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Like so many of his contemporaries, Addison inherited from Locke a container model of the mind, the mind as a dark room or little cabinet furnished by experience. The idea is that mental life is in many ways analogous to physical life—a point more than once made explicit in Locke’s account. Such a mind as Locke’s collects, stores, recalls, and arranges ideas; it compares, combines, and analyzes them—but, like a craftsman with timber and stone, it neither destroys nor creates ideas from scratch. Addison’s innovation was to install pleasure as the prime mover of mental activity. Certain objects are by their nature experienced with more pleasure than others, and this pleasure clings to the ideas those objects sponsor. This small move, adding pleasure as a prime aspect of experience, nevertheless launched what, by some accounts, was the triumph of the Enlightenment. Addison’s account offered a cognitive theory, neurophysiology, and, in the end, civic defense of happiness.

What Addison calls the “primary” pleasures of imagination spring from the direct experience of things themselves; the mind marvels at an object for its greatness, novelty, or beauty. But it is the secondary pleasures that are primary in Harney’s account. These pleasures are naturally more complex, for they are the sensations developing in the commerce between one idea with one or a great many more—especially when the “imagination takes [a] hint” and “leads us unexpectedly” into “cities or theatres, plains or meadows.”[1] Establishing how this works is much of the work of the book’s second chapter. These “secondary” pleasures mean that the more experienced viewer will naturally take more pleasure in a prospect—for they have a larger stock of ideas pleasurably to associate with the view. Likewise, it means that aesthetic pleasure (so wrote Alexander Gerard of beauty in 1759) is “resolvable into association,” and so can be subject to rigorous analysis.[2] This is what makes Addison’s essay a powerful tool for unpacking Strawberry Hill, for the mind, as Addison understands it, is already a collection, and collections might therefore be arranged with a cognitive purpose in view.[3]

Harney is at some pains to demonstrate Walpole’s debts to Addison in word and phrase—arguments that to my eye seem more forced than they need to be. For, in the end, the explicit intellectual history is less important in establishing Walpole’s aesthetic sense than Walpole’s inheritance of habit and gesture. Walpole inherits from Addison a way of approaching his own mental life because he was embedded in a culture of collectors. From Locke to Addison to Walpole: all three men (along with others mentioned by Harney) accepted the same key claim, agreeing on the whole that the mind arranges ideas in ways analogous to a collector arranging objects. And all three accepted it partly because they had already put it in action. Locke was a bibliophile; the content model of mentation he advanced leaned against collecting practices elaborated in his cabinet collection of books. Addison was a gardener and coin-collector. Walpole was of course a collector of art and antiquities. He multiply compared the mind to a collection—or a cabinet, villa, or garden—very much like the collection, cabinet, villa, and garden he installed in Twickenham, and he built a collection based on his understanding of how he thought and moved in the world. Put differently, Addison’s aesthetic seems apt for a collection like Walpole’s because Addison’s aesthetic theory had been based on collecting practices all along. And this is, of course, how one might “place-make” by and “for the imagination,” structuring a space as the model for the mind that was to inhabit it, and vice versa.

Tracing this to and fro between mind and place, place and mind—a phenomenon that Walpole called the Gothic—is what drives much recent Walpole criticism. Harney’s careful study is a principal example. This is a large task, and in pursuing it Harney has laudably digested a large mass of heterogeneous material. Her reading ranges from well-known moments in Walpole’s voluminous correspondence, to lesser-known moments in works published in his own lifetime. She has moreover usefully engaged with a wide range of physical materials, including not only the house, its grounds, and its one-time collection, but also contemporary prints and accounts of Walpole and his belongings. This is in part predicated by the method she has chosen—the programmatic hunting of allusions and gestures between objects in Walpole’s surviving body of work. Harney has in other words announced that she is one of the relatively small set of scholars that has read, surveyed, and otherwise studied Walpole’s voluminous, scattered, and sometimes fugitive works for themselves.

This extensive reading is the strength of the book, for which the Addisonian theory of mental processes provides the connective tissue. It is a pleasure to read the book’s many leaps among Walpole’s treasured objects, tracing their historical echoes and investments. But this also begins to suggest the principal trade-off of the approach Harney has pursued. While Harney has demonstrated herself to be one who has read deeply in Walpole, other scholars belonging to this community of readers will not find themselves reflected in this book. Aside from a few scattered references, including one to my own unpublished Ph.D. thesis,[4] Harney’s essay signals less engagement than one might wish with the energetic discourse recently emerging around Strawberry Hill. Ruth Mack’s critical study on antiquarianism and literary historicity,[5] George Haggerty’s elegant volume on relationships developing around Walpole’s collection,[6] Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi’s indispensable reconstruction of the tour of Strawberry Hill,[7] Barrett Kalter’s striking account of temporality in Walpole’s collections[8]: none of these studies have left there mark in Harney’s monograph. And while the dazzling exhibition catalogue of 2009,[9] which for the first time brought together scholars of the Lewis Walpole Library in Yale with conservators of the house in Twickenham, is mentioned in Harney’s suggestions for further reading, readers will not feel the presence of this catalogue in Harney’s own remarks, or find it mentioned in the notes. Put differently, while this study evinces a great deal of personal labor and imaginative brilliance in reconstructing Walpole’s investment in his collection, and while perhaps this deep reconstruction comes at the cost of engaging in present-day discourse about the stakes of Walpole’s practices, the book will disappoint scholars involved in or familiar with the evolving collaboration around the house and grounds. Because of its focus in documents and material relics, the book misses a great deal of the depth and richness (indeed, pleasure) that comes from conversational elaboration.[10]

The rise and fall, abundance and absence of Harney’s study can most strongly be felt in the book’s last two chapters, where the author recreates a tour of house and grounds as a visitor (or perhaps Walpole) might have experienced it. Recreations like this have been attempted before—Viscardi and Chalcraft undertake one, as does Brian Fothergill[11]—and for Harney, it is where her insights are specially put to the test; this is where the monograph shifts from a mostly text-driven account of affinities between the Gothic and Addison’s “pleasures” to a place-driven account of the aesthetic effects of objects on tour.

In one moment, Harney treats the elaborate Gothic chimneypiece in Walpole’s so-called “Holbein Chamber,” deftly linking it to a seminal figure in English politics. Walpole’s printed Description of Strawberry Hill is loaded with engravings of fretwork—moments that are all but ignored in most modern criticism; likewise, his letters are filled with descriptions of the places he visited on tour, episodes that all but the most attentive reader tends, after a time, to skim. From a local look at an ornate chimneypiece, Harney unpacks associations with Archbishop Warham (1450–1532), Catherine of Aragon, the Tudor dynasty, and so on, arguing that “each time Walpole encountered the chimney-piece it recalled to his imagination a multiplicity of thoughts” (131). This makes a silent leap, which might or might not be justified; it takes for granted that Walpole’s mind worked the way Addison described—rather than that he merely constructed the house according to the aesthetic system Addison developed. It takes for granted that Walpole’s mind worked, silently and tirelessly, in the way that Walpole himself seems sometimes to have suspected cognition worked. This allows Harney to connect descriptions of the house through Walpole’s experience to thoughts recovered from Walpole’s occasional remarks, not the least of which are from his visits to Canterbury Cathedral, where Warham’s tomb offered the pattern for the chimney-piece. So Harney has reinvigorated, for me, at least, what have in the past appeared to be the dullest, most metronomically repetitive passages in Walpole’s letters—his reportage on the houses he has visited, the collections he saw, the gardens he strolled, and so on. And she has shown how these travels and voyages, funneled through an associative theory of cognitive pleasure, are captured in metonymically rich “architectural quotations” in even the most ornamental of the house’s ornaments.

The treatment of the Gothic chimneypiece is exemplary of the best the book puts on display—but the study of the central stairwell is, at least to me, less satisfying, and less satisfying in proportion with the amount of work that has been spent on the space by others. This stairwell has received more attention than any other room in Strawberry Hill, with the exception perhaps of the library. I myself have attempted a reading of this space[12]; so too have Chalcraft and Viscardi, W. S. Lewis, and many others, for, among other things, the space is strongly and multiply associated with Walpole’s best-known work, the Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). The stairwell is important because it stages, depending on how you look at it, either Walpole’s own historiographic antiquarianism, or a wishful revisioning of his own legacy. Harney’s reading groups a few prominent portraits and pieces into one integrated story they suggest. This is its strength. But it misses the ways in which their organization does a particular kind of historiographic and, indeed, cognitive work. Strawberry Hill was multiply remarked for its idiosyncrasy; this space, as much as any other, has seemed to many to develop a deliberate hodgepodgery into a positive cognitive effect, which manifests itself first in a spontaneous burst of surprise, even, perhaps of ebullient joy.[13] The quality and timbre of linkings, the multiple aesthetics of the placements of things in relation to one another, has been the work of generations of scholars to begin to unpack—and it is a sensitivity to these differences which this book declines, as part of its project, to address.

Let me conclude, then, by taking a step back. Harney’s approach, binding Addison’s account of the mind’s pleasures to Walpole’s architectural and curatorial practices strikes me as being apropos—so apropos as to approach a historically justified tautology. Addison’s system, which bent a prior set of collecting practices into a cognitive and neurophysiological system, provides Harney an elegant way of linking house, collections, and written work. In this sense, the originality and importance of the book is to demonstrate that a full unpacking of the house and grounds must include analysis of Walpole’s experiences expressed in thoughts recorded elsewhere (see 104). The book succeeds at this—and students and scholars of Walpole will find much that is new, here, in the connections it makes between the material and textual artifacts Walpole has left behind.

In achieving these ends, however, something else has been left out. In pursuing Addison’s rather limited account of mental processes exclusively, this study declines to note that Addison was chiefly remembered as an essayist, conversationalist, and master of style. So it was with Walpole. In treating the house as an “autobiographical site,” a place built to generate “private resonances, pleasure, and entertainment” (213), Place-making for the Imagination forgets that Strawberry Hill was built in collaboration, and designed for friendship. It was a lodging house and dynamic space where competing ideas and aesthetics tried themselves out. Walpole himself multiply refers to the house for its many inhabitants: he complains that it is an inn burdened with tourists, revels in it as an academy of learning, or values it as a site of friendly conversational exchange. He invited guests for extended stays, and indeed built the house to suit them. The house itself was moreover designed by a committee, the so-called “Committee of Taste,” and contained masses of objects that were the hinges of potent relationships. He admitted that “I and my friends and this place compose but one idea in my mind,” himself gesturing to the importance of friendships in place-making.[14] Much of this is, by the nature of Harney’s approach, swept aside in the focused pursuit linking single house to single mind. This is what I meant by registering my own disappointment. For me, at least, the beauty and brilliance (and, yes, pleasure) of recent work on Walpole lies in the discourse springing up in his shadow: at the house, at the LWL, in print, and elsewhere. Indeed, this is much of what makes it an exciting time in Walpolean scholarship. Strawberry Hill was a house begun in collaboration, from the start subordinating architectural quotation to aesthetic collaboration. It was, throughout, a house of relationships, at least as much as contents. So it is today. Strawberry Hill and the Lewis Walpole Library are imagination-places that continue to invite conversation. Readers of Harney’s book will find much to admire. They will, however, miss the vector of pleasure that accompanies the living discourse the house and collection continue to inspire.



[1]. Addison, The Spectator No. 417 (June 28, 1712).

[2]. Alexander Gerard, Essay on Taste (London, 1759), 45.

[3]. I elaborate this argument in The Mind is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century British Thought (Philadelphia, 2015).

[4]. Sean Silver, “The Curatorial Imagination in England, 1660–1752” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 2008).

[5]. Ruth Mack, Literary Historicity: Literature and Historical Experience in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, 2009), 109–29.

[6]. George Haggerty, Horace Walpole’s Letters: Masculinity and Friendship in the Eighteenth Century (Lewisburg, 2011).

[7]. Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi, Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle (London, 2007). See also, by the same authors, Visiting Strawberry Hill: An Analysis of the Eton Copy of the Description of the Villa (Wimbledon, 2005).

[8]. Barrett Kalter, Modern Antiques: The Material Past in England, 1660–1780 (Lewisburg, 2012).

[9]. Michael Snodin, ed., Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill (New Haven, 2009).

[10]. A few of the claims that Harney makes for originality may be found, albeit in a less explicit form, in one or more prior studies. The key claim that Horace Walpole is articulating an Addisonian aesthetic, while not strictly new to Marion Harney’s study, is pursued with a rigor that is not to be found elsewhere. But other claims, such as for instance that the book “has made clear for the first time that … the architectural borrowings of Strawberry Hill … represent visual connections to historic figures and significant events in English history” (Harney, 278), overlook a wide range of studies, including those by Chalcraft and Viscardi, Kalter, Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (for instance, his 1934 essay, “Genesis of Strawberry Hill” [Metropolitan Museum Studies 5, no. 1 (1934): 57–92]), Mack, myself, and others.

[11]. Brian Fothergill, The Strawberry Hill Set: Horace Walpole and His Circle (London, 1983).

[12]. Silver, “Visiting Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Historiography,” ECF 21, no. 4 (2009): 535–64.

[13]. See, for instance, Susan Bernstein, Housing Problems: Writing and Architecture in Goethe, Walpole, Freud, and Heidegger (Stanford, 2008). Among studies in the last decade, see Silver, “Visiting”; Kalter, 181–90; Chalcraft and Viscardi, “Visiting,” 34–41.

[14]. Horace Walpole to the Countess of Ossory (3 June 1778), in Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, ed. Lewis, 48 vols. (New Haven, 1937–83), 31:168.