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  • A Treasure House in Farmington: The Lewis Walpole Library
  • Peter Sabor
A Treasure House in Farmington: The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale Center for British Art (15 October 1999—9 January 2000).

In 1747, Horace Walpole rented Strawberry Hill, a former coachman’s cottage overlooking the Thames, near the fashionable village of Twickenham. He bought the house two years later, at the age of thirty-one, and began transforming it into an astonishing neo-Gothic miniature castle. In March 1754, he showed the house to his friend George Montagu, who “was in raptures, and screamed, and whooped, and hollaed, and danced, and crossed himself a thousand times over.” Montagu’s raptures were a suitably dramatic response to the spectacular effects that Walpole had created. Strawberry Hill was in a constant state of expansion: Walpole, together with his “Committee of taste,” John Chute and Richard Bentley, was steadily designing, remodelling, building, and filling interior spaces until they threatened to overflow. Later in 1754, Walpole dwelled with satisfaction on the progress made since his aunt, Lady Townshend, first saw the cottage in its original state and “cried out ‘Lord God! Jesus! what a house! It is just such a house as a parson’s, where the children lie at the feet of the bed.’” The building and collecting at Strawberry Hill continued for most of Walpole’s life: he installed a printing press, the first private press in England, extended the grounds from five to forty-six acres, and enlarged the house itself with numerous additional rooms, staircases, and towers, until it was triple its original size.

Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis was also aged thirty-one when he bought his eighteenth-century house in Farmington, Connecticut, in 1926. Like Walpole he enlarged his home substantially. He did not turn it into a Gothic castle, but for over fifty years he filled it with every piece of Walpoliana he could acquire: the books that Walpole wrote, printed, and owned; his papers, including his vast correspondence and the manuscripts of his unpublished writings; the contents of Strawberry Hill, including paintings, furnishings, and parts of Walpole’s numerous collections; writings by those associated with Walpole, such as Gray, Mason, Chatterton (who does not feature in the present exhibition), and Mme du Deffand; and a rich body of literature and art from what Lewis thought of as the Age of Horace Walpole. He also produced editions of Walpole’s complete correspondence in 48 fully annotated volumes, wrote books on Walpole and on his library, and described his own life’s work as a Walpole collector and scholar in Collector’s Progress (1951) and One Man’s Education (1967). On his death in 1979, he bequeathed his house and collection, as the somewhat confusingly named Lewis Walpole Library, to Yale University. Its resources include a superbly organized Print Room, containing some 37,000 prints, established by Lewis’s wife Annie Burr Auchinloss, who served as its curator until her death in 1959.

A Treasure House in Farmington, curated by Joan Sussler and Anna Malicka, both librarians at the Lewis Walpole Library, commemorated the twentieth anniversary of Lewis’s bequest to Yale, featuring some 150 items from his collection in the light and airy surroundings of the Yale Center for British Art. At Farmington, these treasures are scattered among many different rooms, and not all are readily accessible. This ingenious exhibition displayed them to optimum effect: even frequent visitors to the Lewis Walpole Library would have been astonished to see some of its finest holdings so effectively defamiliarized. In arranging the display, Sussler and Malicka created a series of bold juxtapositions, a technique especially appropriate for Horace Walpole, who himself made a baronial castle out of a coachman’s cottage and mingled objets d’art from assorted countries and historical periods without regard for traditional lines of demarcation. [End Page 454]

At the threshold of the exhibition, Allan Ramsay’s fine portrait of Walpole was hung so that the subject’s sideways glance fell upon the Gothic lantern that Bentley designed for the entrance hall at Strawberry Hill, that Walpole filled with fifteenth-century painted glass to cast appropriate gloom on his staircase, and that Lewis rescued from...

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