Collector and Collected – Horace Walpole and Wilmarth Lewis

This was a talk I gave in an art history class on Collectors and Collecting, 2005. The slides were in the Victoria University of Wellington Art History Department, and I haven’t been able to reproduce them all here.


SLIDE 1 – Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Horace Walpole, 1756; Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 ins. National Portrait Gallery, London

In this seminar I will discuss the collections of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) – Sir Robert was British Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742. I will discuss what Horace collected, what he used his collections for (which also relates to his reasons for collecting) and what happened to them after his death, and finally, how in the twentieth-century an American, Wilmarth S Lewis, attempted to put Walpole back together (by collecting ‘Walpoliana’)[1]. Lewis’s collection and his scholarship on Walpole have had a wider influence on eighteenth-century historical studies (and not for the better, according to one critic). So what did Walpole collect? As was usual for his class at that time, he made a ‘grand tour’ to Italy from March 1739 to September 1741 and collected the usual things a ‘grand tourist’ might collect – Italian paintings, prints, busts, medals, coins. He was particularly pleased with an ancient sculpture of an eagle that was obtained on his behalf a few years after he returned to England. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of him shows him with an engraving of the eagle and slide 2 shows the eagle statue in his library.

SLIDE 2 – John Carter, The Boccapadugli Eagle in the Library at Strawberry Hill, Watercolour drawing, 8 ¼ x 9 ins, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

slide 2

On his return from Italy he spent some time designing a hang of his father’s art collection and producing a catalogue of it (The Aedes Walpoliana). The picture of Walpole on the handout shows him with a fictitious copy of this book [fictitious because I think it was only a slim volume] & he wears old-fashioned Van Dyckian costume, presumably because his father’s collection contained some Van Dyck’s. Most of his father’s collection was sold in 1779 to Catherine the Great of Russia.

Despite his early interest in Italian art, he soon became interested in his main collecting passion for the rest of his life, which was English portraits or “heads” as they were commonly called at the time; and later, portraits from pre-revolutionary France. In about 1743 Walpole met George Vertue (1684-1756) described as ‘England’s leading portrait engraver and compiler of facts about the history of English art’ (Brownell:69). Walpole’s interest in portraits may have come, at least partly, from Vertue, who made some engravings after portraits in Walpole’s collection. After Vertue’s death in 1756 Walpole purchased Vertue’s four volumes of notes on painting which Walpole ‘edited’ to produce the first history of art in Britain, Anecdotes of Painting from 1762 to 1770[2]. In these volumes Walpole added his own style, and his own interests show through. He was patronising about English artists – ‘as our painters have been very indifferent, I must to make the work interesting…mix it with anecdotes of patrons of the arts’. (Brownell:87) And he hopes these ‘trifling notices’ will assist families find out about the portraits of their ancestors. Both of these sentences reflect Walpole’s interests, not Vertue’s attitudes. However, Walpole’s views are not unusual for his time – any ‘gentleman of taste’ preferred old master Italian art to English art. Walpole’s interest in English portraits was also connected with his interest in the gothic, and he re-designed his house (called Strawberry Hill) in a neo-gothic style.[3]

SLIDE 3 – William Robinson, Strawberry Hill (exterior) 1748

This is a later image from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection: Strawb Hill

SLIDE 4 – Thomas Pitt, Gallery at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham (post 1748)

Strawb hill Pitt

So why did he collect portraits? His interests were historical, or ‘antiquarian’. He didn’t collect portraits particularly for the artist, or the quality of the painting itself, but who was depicted in it. He would try to identify the people in a painting if they weren’t known, find out about their lives, and he was particularly fond of anecdotes about them, which he thought enlivened the dull work of an antiquarian. He published some of his inquiries (he had his own press). His other main interest in the portraits he collected was in provenance, especially if they had previously had aristocratic owners.

SLIDE 5 – Page from an album formerly in Walpole’s collection, of caricatures, 1776, 1786, NY Public Library

As well as paintings he collected prints – he had nearly 8000 printed portraits. He may have been one of the first to organise his print collection along the lines proposed by the director of the print cabinet at Dresden, Carl Heinrich von Heinecken in his 1771 book (Idee generale d’une collection complette d’estampes; Leipzig) (Hyatt Mayor, 1967:183). The prints were pasted on both sides of a leaf in albums arranged chronologically by reign and subdivided into professions such as ‘Statesmen’, ‘Clergy’. Other categories included ‘Female Sex’ and ‘Remarkable Characters and Phenomena’ (Lambert, 1987:177).

Collecting English portraits became very popular around this time, especially after the publication of Reverend Granger’s Biographical History of England… (1769), but Walpole’s interest began before this[4]. In fact, one author, Morris Brownell believes Granger’s book was based on Walpole’s collection. Walpole wrote that he had been helping with the book and it was dedicated to Walpole, but Granger also corresponded with a number of other collectors of “heads” (Pointon, p53-4). The term ‘grangerizing’ or ‘to grangerize’ was a popular activity well into the nineteenth century. It meant collecting and interleaving illustrations into books. Walpole notes that the prices of portrait prints went up significantly after Granger’s book was published. Despite the hierarchy of genres in painting (with history subjects at the top) portraits actually made up the largest category at the Royal Academy exhibitions in the early 1780s (Pointon:39).

Walpole was a member of the Antiquarian Society and made the comment: ‘I had rather leave obscurities in their darkness than, as most antiquaries do, pronounce rashly. Truth is the sole merit of most antiquities and when we cannot discover the truth, what value is there in dogmatic error…’ [17/9/74] (Brownell:105). However, Walpole could be wilfully blind when it came to his own collection. In the 1750s he purchased a fifteenth century panel painting which he assumed to be the Marriage of Henry VI. He asked his friend (the poet) Thomas Gray to find details of the marriage to see if it supported his assumptions. In one letter Gray wrote: ‘I am very glad my objections serve only to strengthen your first opinion about the subject of your picture’ (Brownell:99). Perhaps Gray knew there wasn’t much point in arguing if Walpole had made up his mind. This painting is now called Marriage of a Saint. The bridegroom definitely has a halo, which I could see even in the reproduction – but it has probably been cleaned since Walpole owned it. In slide 2 the picture was located over the mantle above the fire in the library at Strawberry Hill.

SLIDE 6 – Attributed to Jan Gossaert, Called The Marriage of Henry VII, Oil on panel, fifteenth century, Private Collection. Formerly Horace Walpole’s collection. [This is slide 7 before restoration]

Perhaps slightly more understandable was his mislabelling of another of his paintings (slide 6), which he bought as a Marriage of Henry VII. Walpole assumed the King was on the right with a sceptre in his hand, his wife on the left, and the painting included ‘a perspective of a church, all very neat and curious’ (Brownell:102). Walpole again asks for opinions from various friends but he lets them know what he expects (Vertue was sceptical, but Walpole dismissed his reservations).

SLIDE 7 – Attributed to Hugo van der Goes, Virgin and Child with Saints, c.1472, Private Collection on loan to Met Museum, NY. [This is slide 6 after restoration]

strawb hill virgin From the Lewis Walpole library website of Walpole’s painting collection

Recent conservation and restoration shows that this was a Virgin and Saints painting which had been altered in the early seventeenth century, presumably to increase its saleability to an English audience.

When Horace couldn’t obtain a portrait he particularly liked, he had them copied, although this wasn’t unusual in the 18th century – for example he had a painting copied supposedly of Frances Howard, a seventeenth-century woman. His interest was in her life, which involved murder, divorce and imprisonment in the Tower (Brownell:111). In 1773 or 1774 he acquired this miniature [Slide 8] of her from the collection of the late James West, President of the Royal Society.

SLIDE 8 – Isaac Oliver, Woman said to be Frances Howard of Somerset, c.1606 Miniature, 5 ins diameter, London: V & A. Formerly in Horace Walpole’s collection.

strawb hill oliver From the V & A website

Walpole had 13 years earlier drawn up a list of West’s pictures so he knew his collection well. In fact, Walpole was referred to in West’s sale catalogue (as the ‘Muse of Strawberry Hill’) as a notable collector of engraved English portraits (Pointon:56).

Walpole was also fond of the era of Louis XIV and collected portraits of characters from that time. On the death of the Countess of Sandwich in Paris, he wrote to her executors enquiring about a portrait he knew she owned. Her grandson offered it to Walpole, but there was the obstacle of the French king’s droit d’aubaine to get around (the king’s right to the property of aliens who died in France). Writing to various acquaintances he finally managed to obtain the portrait.

SLIDE 9 – John Opie, Mary Granville, Mrs Delany. In frame designed by Horace Walpole, Oil on Canvas, 29 ½ x 24 ½ ins, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Straw hill mrs delany

From website information for an exhibition called Mrs Delany and her circle (pdf).

Walpole also designed an elaborate frame and wrote an epitaph for a portrait the Countess of Bute commissioned from John Opie (a copy of one Opie had already done, which was in the King’s collection). Walpole’s name is included fairly prominently on the frame. Marcia Pointon (1993: 34) comments on this: At one level the actual frame may flatter the subject, but at another level it may serve to appropriate the sitter and, also, to erase the artist. She goes on to say that after the sitter’s death, her image (and by extension, her reputation) was annexed by Horace Walpole. This seems a little strong to me, but perhaps his name is more prominent than it appears in this reproduction.

In a letter to a friend Walpole explained his historical interests thus:

I almost think there is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one. (5 Jan 1766, quoted by Brownell, p93)

And another time he wrote ‘…such inquiries make one taste history ten times more’ than if one only reads a list of names (Brownell:123). He could summon up memories associated with the objects. He often commissioned portraits of his friends and family for his house. One friend removed her portrait from his house to have an alteration made to it, which occasioned his comment that ‘it is lopping a limb to touch any of the constituent parts’. There certainly seems to be a sense of nostalgia, of wanting to live in a ‘better’ past, and almost living through the objects, in Walpole’s collecting motives. However, the idea that he was living in the past would be going too far, as his ‘historical’ interests also extended to his own time. He collected large amounts of printed material of his era (plays, poems, tracts etc), which he bound into volumes and some of which he used as sources for his correspondence. And, it seems he intended to use his correspondence to write memoirs of his times, as he asked some of the correspondents to return his letters to him (Ketton-Cremer, 1964:97)[5]

Walpole had not married and had no children, so after his death his property went to the daughter of his cousin and close friend, Henry Seymour Conway. But finding the maintenance too high she passed it to Walpole’s great-niece, Laura Countess of Waldegrave[6]. Her son (‘pressed by debts’) decided to sell the contents in 1842 – mostly in an on-site sale lasting 32 days, but also some of it later in London (McCarthy, 2004).

Walpole was self-deprecating about his antiquarian studies, which Brownell (p4-6) argues was in accord with his views of what a gentleman should be. He should be knowledgeable but not obviously so – Walpole looked down on the ‘virtuosi’ who displayed his learning. In the catalogue of his collection at Strawberry Hill, he speaks of it as an ‘assemblage of curious trifles’ (Brownell, p93). These views of himself were also recorded in his voluminous correspondence, some of which began to be published in the nineteenth century. His reputation as a scholar and collector reached an all-time low in 1833 when Thomas Babington Macaulay critically reviewed a book of some of his correspondence. According to Macaulay, to Walpole serious business was a trifle, and trifles were serious business (Worden:2001:36). Macaulay also ridiculed some of the ‘curiosities’ in Walpole’s collection, such as Cardinal Wolsey’s red hat. But most of these relic curiosities were gifts from his friends and not chosen by Walpole[7].

But there his reputation remained until the twentieth century: enter Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis. Lewis (1895-1979) was a wealthy American, who in the 1920s, began collecting Walpole’s manuscripts and a few letters. After reading the editions of Walpole letters then available he thought Walpole brought the 18th century alive, and decided to collect him. He began reassembling books that had once been in Walpole’s library, and which Walpole often annotated. He collected anything the Strawberry Hill press produced, in as many copies as he could obtain; some furniture and objects from Strawberry Hill house; and over 6,000 of Walpole’s letters (original or photostated copies). He also collected other material relevant to Walpole’s era: auction and booksellers catalogues; prints; books, and c10,000 other letters.

As a boy Lewis collected the usual things (except perhaps his house fly collection but that was when he was aged 5). He describes the thrill of collecting (in this case butterflies) as the all but unbearable excitement when the longed-for quarry appears, the fierce and crafty pursuit … and one additional factor, the admiring and …envious visitors. (Lewis, 1952:6) He decided fairly early that he would leave his Walpole collection to Yale University when he died. He published some of his Walpole material, with his own annotations, but his major project was to edit and annotate Walpole’s correspondence into 48 volumes that Yale University Press published from 1937 to 1983. He says My wife and I were prepared to finance the new edition, but only if it had the backing of a university. Without that endorsement it would be merely the eccentric venture of an amateur who fancied himself a scholar… (Lewis, 1952:159) He clearly wants to be seen as pursuing something worthwhile and scholarly. He also wrote about his collecting in a book called Collector’s Progress (1952) and wrote an autobiography in 1967. I did a google search on Lewis – it seems his independent source of wealth was inherited oil money, and for a couple of years during World War 2 he worked for the government collating and cataloguing large amounts of material about Europe. For this he has been described a spy, but it seems to me he was more of a librarian. He also wrote a couple of novels, but his ‘life’s work’ (as he and others described it) was definitely Horace Walpole.

Since 1980 the collection has been owned by Yale and is called the Lewis Walpole library. Lewis also left his 1784-built house and 14 acre property to Yale, which is where the library is still housed. According to the library’s website it includes half the traceable volumes from Horace Walpole’s library, it has over 32,000 books, and the largest and finest collection of eighteenth century British graphic art outside the British Museum, with 35,000 images. Not only is it the most important source of information for anyone writing about Walpole, but even more general books on the 18th century will often quote from Walpole’s letters or use material from the Lewis Walpole library[8].

What were Lewis’s motives? Early on he said if he was going to buy some Walpole material he wouldn’t stop there until he had the finest collection of Walpole in the world (1952:37-8). There is no doubt he wants to collect something substantial that he will be admired and remembered for. He regards collecting as a form of scholarship (1952:62). He also identified with Walpole and says that for many years he felt criticism of Walpole was criticism of himself.

Lewis, and others associated with him, tried to swing the pendulum of Walpole’s reputation to the other extreme from Macaulay, by making Walpole into a serious scholar. Morris Brownell’s book Horace Walpole: Prime Minister of Taste, (2001) tries to reach a more balanced view of Walpole’s scholarly pursuits and his collections. However, Professor J H Plumb, a historian of the 18th century, reviewed the Yale edition of Walpole’s correspondence[9] and said this about Horace Walpole:

the major problems of late eighteenth-century society… Walpole never touched upon. He is useful to the historian for decoration not understanding. The cult of Walpole obscures rather than reveals both the nature of English politics and of English society of his time… (Plumb, 1965a)

Some collectors try to achieve immortality through founding, or leaving their collections to public, museums. Walpole chose not to do this, but Lewis has achieved it for him, and by association, for himself. Our view of the 18th century is now at least partly seen through Walpole’s eyes, mainly because of the efforts of W S Lewis. But according to Plumb, Walpole doesn’t justify the effort lavished on him and Lewis’s edited Walpole correspondence presents a ‘mischievous and distorting cultural attitude to eighteenth-century England’ (Plumb, 1965a). I particularly like Plumb’s comment that ‘the obsessions of collectors have spread like viruses in literary and historical scholarship without anyone noticing the damage’ (1965a). Plumb was writing in the 1960s and I don’t think he anticipated the vast increase in social and cultural histories of more recent times, where Walpole is arguably of more relevance than for political history. Nevertheless, whatever one’s views about Walpole, Lewis’s collection of eighteenth-century material is still valuable for scholarship.

Slide list

SLIDE 1 – Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Horace Walpole, 1756; Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 ins. National Portrait Gallery, London

SLIDE 2 – John Carter, The Boccapadugli Eagle in the Library at Strawberry Hill, Watercolour drawing, 8 ¼ x 9 ins, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

SLIDE 3 – William Robinson, Strawberry Hill (exterior) 1748

SLIDE 4 – Thomas Pitt, Gallery at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham (post 1748)

SLIDE 5 – Page from an album formerly in Walpole’s collection, of caricatures, 1776, 1786, NY Public Library

SLIDE 6 – Attributed to Jan Gossaert, Called The Marriage of Henry VII, Oil on panel, fifteenth century, Private Collection. Formerly Horace Walpole’s collection. [This is slide 7 before restoration]

SLIDE 7 – Attributed to Hugo van der Goes, Virgin and Child with Saints, c.1472, Private Collection on loan to Met Museum, NY. [This is slide 6 after restoration]

SLIDE 8 – Isaac Oliver, Woman said to be Frances Howard of Somerset, c.1606 Miniature, 5 ins diameter, London: V& A . Formerly in Horace Walpole’s collection.

SLIDE 9 – John Opie, Mary Granville, Mrs Delany. In frame designed by Horace Walpole, Oil on Canvas, 29 ½ x 24 ½ ins, National Portrait Gallery, London.


Bishop, LuAnn. “The Lewis Walpole Library: A Piece of Yale in Farmington.” Yale Bulletin and Calendar 24.33 (1996).

Brownell, Morris. The Prime Minister of Taste: A Portrait of Horace Walpole. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Herrmann, Frank. The English as Collectors: A Documentary Sourcebook. New Castle, Delaware & London: Oak Knoll Press & John Murray, rev ed 1999

Hunting Smith, W (ed). Horace Walpole: Writer, Politician and Connoisseur: Essays on the 250th Anniversary of Walpole’s Birth. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1967.

Hyatt Mayor, A. “A Note on the Prints at Strawberry Hill.” Horace Walpole: Writer, Politician and Connoisseur. in W Hunting Smith (ed). New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1967.

Ketton-Cremer, R W. Horace Walpole: A biography. NY: Cornell University Press, 1964

Lambert, Susan. The Image Multiplied: Five Centuries of Printed Reproductions of Paintings and Drawings. London: Trefoil, 1987. (p177)

Lewis, Wilmarth. Collector’s Progress. London: Constable & Co, 1952.

Lewis, W S. A Guide to the Life of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), Fourth Earl of Orford, as Illustrated by an Exhibition Based on the Yale Edition of His Correspondence. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1973.

McCarthy, Michael. “Horace Walpole.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press (2005).

Pointon, Marcia. Hanging the Head: portraiture and social formation in eighteenth century England. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993

Plumb, J H. [1965a] “Horace Walpole at Yale.” New York Review of Books 5.4 (1965).

Plumb, J H.[1965b] “Letter to Editor.” New York Review of Books 5.9 (1965).

Worden, Blair. “A Self-Fashioned Harlequin.” The Spectator 287.9023 (2001): 36-37.

Websites: (Lewis Walpole library) (Strawberry Hill paintings) (Information about Strawberry Hill) (V & A exhibition)


[1] The phrase is not completely inappropriate as Walpole once described losing an object from his house as like lopping off a limb (Brownell, 2001:94).

[2] As noted on the Walpole Society’s website (, which was formed in 1911 to promote the study of the history of British art, and named after Horace Walpole.

[3] In 1752 he wrote ‘I have done with virtu [classical antiquity] and deal only with the Goths and Vandals’ (Brownell:69).

[4] Granger wasn’t the first to show such an interest. For example, in 1747, Joseph Ames had published ‘A catalogue of English Heads’ (Pointon, p55)

[5] He did write some memoirs, but they remained unpublished until W Lewis included them with the Yale edition of Walpole’s correspondence.

[6] This information is from the, which includes a history of Strawberry Hill.

[7] This reputation did not help for the sale of the house contents in 1842 – ‘The Times described [it] in the derisory manner to be expected of Walpole’s repute at the time’ (Herrmann 1999:118). It raised 33,450 pounds.

[8] For example: Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature: Satirical prints in the reign of George III (Yale UP, 1996); Brian Dolan Ladies of the Grand Tour (Flamingo, 2001); Jeremy Black The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century (Sutton, 2003); and Amanda Foreman Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Flamingo, 1998).

[9] In the New York Review of Books in 1965 (Plumb 1965a), and subsequently answered criticism of his review in a letter to the editor (Plumb, 1965b).


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