How on earth do you track 150 paintings, sculptures, furniture and curiosities which were dispersed 176 years ago after the great “sale of the century?” You hire art super-sleuth Silvia Davoli, that’s how. And you know Horace Walpole would be tickled pink (or probably red, a colour he used lavishly and liberally) to see his loot once again adorning the halls and walls of his extraordinary Gothic mansion in London. After a worldwide three-year hunt, the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill are home for a good haunting, at least for a while.
Of course, the lost treasures weren’t exactly lost. They were sold back in 1842 during a sale which would last 24 days and see the sale of some 4000 objects. Davoli, who is research curator at Strawberry Hill, specialises in the history of collecting and has been tracking the location of these magnificent objects since 2013. Fast forward to 2018, and the 150 works which form part of the exhibition come from 55 lenders which include 15 of the UK’s great country houses. Some of the objects are still in the possession of the same families, such as the Earl of Derby, who purchased the original objects back in 1842. Lucky for the curators, and for us, Walpole was a meticulous diarist and notekeeper, and recorded every object and its location in his Description of Strawberry Hill.
Lost Treasures – Exhibition Highlights
Walpole was the ultimate tastemaster, the inventor of modern gothic, and I’m always in awe when I see this extraordinary house perched on a hill in suburban Twickenham. You can take a quick tour of the house with me here, but I strongly recommend you head down there and see it with your own eyes.
Anne Boleyn’s Clock in The Library
Walpole was a big fan of all things Tudor. He had eight Henry VIII portraits in the house and a piece of Mary Tudor’s hair on display in the Beauclerk Closet. In the Library is a remarkable object on loan by Her Majesty the Queen: a clock which Henry gifted to his new bride, Anne Boleyn, on the morning of their wedding day in 1530. It bears the royal coat of arms and is engraved with the lovers’ initials. Walpole referred to this token of love as one of the “Principal Curiosities” in his collection.
The Ladies Waldegrave in The Great Parlour
I’ve been buzzing with anticipation to see this marvellous Joshua Reynolds portrait of Horace’s three great nieces. He requested that they be pictured as the Three Graces, yet the painting is more illustrative of the Three Fates. They are depicted as Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who spin, measure and cut the thread of life.
Cardinal Wolsey’s Hat in the Holbein Chamber
This fine object (which I could not photograph) used to hang in Walpole’s Holbein Chamber. Dedicated to all things Tudor, this room was the template for “period rooms” and thought to be the first of its kind in Europe. The ceiling was a copy of the Queen’s Dressing Room in Windsor Castle. The room had purple walls and a purple bed covered in purple and white feathers. Walpole referred to this room as “sober”. You can imagine what the rest of the house looked like if this was his most muted.
The Eagle has Landed
It took two years to heave this 1st century AD Roman eagle back to Strawberry Hill from Italy. At some stage, a chunk of its beak broke off, and the said vandal put the piece in his pocket. Walpole was a great supporter of female artists, and commissioned his cousin and protegée, Anne Seymour Damer, to fix the beak. Walpole would bequeath Strawberry Hill to Damer before she passed it down to John Waldegrave.
Catherine de Medici in The Gallery
The portrait of Catherine de Medici and her Children hangs in The Gallery, a folly of a room and one in which I could sit for hours. I just wish I could see it stuffed exactly as it would have been in Walpole’s day. Today, I will settle for this grand portrait and the gold and white papier maché-vaulted ceiling, modelled on Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey.
The Cabinet in The Tribune
The cabinet of miniatures and enamels was designed by Walpole on his return from the Grand Tour. I cannot imagine anywhere else in the world where this cabinet should belong. It’s lost inside its permanent home in the gargantuan Victoria and Albert Museum. I for one think it should be returned to Strawberry Hill for good. Who’s with me?
Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill is on until 24 February 2019. More information here.
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