Monday, May 3, 2010

Strawberry Hill for ever

Last week I went to London for a day to look at a couple of exhibitions connected with the eighteenth century. My morning was spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition. This was a wonderful display of objects from the Thames-side house, as well as fascinating drawings and plans of the property showing not only how it was designed but something of what it looked like when Walpole lived in it.

What struck me was the number of objects in Walpole’s collection that were wrongly attributed. Francis I’s gilt suit of armour was never worn by the French king; a painting of the children of Henry VIII actually depicts three children of Christian II of Denmark; a portrait of Frances Duchess of Suffolk and Adrian Stokes shows Lady Dacre and her son Gregory Fiennes; early sixteenth century ebony furniture dates from some 150 years later; and coins from the reign of Elizabeth I are fake.

Of course, Walpole didn’t have access to modern scientific methods and scholarship, and like modern collectors he could be taken in by dodgy dealers. An inscription on a medieval comb linking it to Saxon St Bertha, for example, was added in the seventeenth century. Still, the errors were curious. Walpole had an enormous library – 7,000 books – yet in spite of this resource he was still unable to date and identify many of the items in his collection.

I like to think that he simply preferred his own, more colourful descriptions. I imagine that Frances Duchess of Suffolk was a much more racy prospect than Lady Dacre. Mother of Lady Jane Grey, she married a man who was not only 16 years younger but was her master of horse into the bargain. Mind you, Lady Dacre’s husband was hanged for murder so maybe there wouldn’t have been much in it…

Walpole didn’t get everything wrong, of course. The black mirror that Dr Dee used to summon spirits did belong to the good doctor. It’s a fascinating object and there’s something genuinely disconcerting about it: when you look into it you see your own ghost. What Walpole didn’t know was that it was Aztec. I suspect he would have found the idea that it had belonged to an Aztec priest much more exciting than that an Elizabethan necromancer once owned it.

There are many other wonderful things to see – paintings by Hogarth and Peter Lely, miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat. I loved the Rowlandson prints, especially the antiquarian starting in amazement at Strawberry House – or the two maids peeping over the wall. If you can’t get to the V & A to see the print you can look at it on line – see http://images.library.yale.edu/strawberryhill/oneitem.asp?id=208. You can view many other items in this on-line catalogue of the Strawberry Hill Collection – this fantastic website has already been added to my favourites!

I watched a short video about the restoration work at the mansion, which reopens this autumn. I’m looking forward to visiting it, and will be keeping an eye on the Friends of Strawberry Hill website (http://www.friendsofstrawberryhill.org/) for updates. In the meantime, curbing my impatience, I pottered over to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the home of another renowned collector, Sir John Soane.

The particular attraction was their exhibition Mrs Delany and her Circle. Mrs Delany was a great friend of my literary heroine, Frances Burney. Miss Burney (as she then was) described her meeting with the old lady on 19 January 1783, when she was shown the “new art which she had invented”. This was the “staining paper of all possible colours, and then cutting it out, so finely and delicately, that when it is pasted on paper or vellum, it has all the appearance of being pencilled, except that by being raised, it has still a richer and more natural look. The effect is extremely beautiful. She invented it at seventy-five!”. Miss Burney adds “They are all from nature, and consist of the most curious flowers, plants, and weeds, that are to be found. She has been supplied with patterns from all the great gardens, and all the great florists in the kingdom.”

Beautiful indeed is the effect, and something more besides. Mrs Delany’s “paper mosaicks” as she called them are noted not only for their beauty but for their botanical accuracy. No longer regarded as a leisured lady’s time-filling pursuit, they are recognised as accurate studies, many of which were based on the dissection of specimens and the meticulous reproduction of their constituent parts. She annotated the pictures using the Linnaean classification. Sir Joseph Banks, who sent her plants from Kew Gardens, paid tribute to their accuracy when he said that he could learn exactly what a plant looked like from looking at Mrs Delany’s flowers.

The exhibition in the Soane Gallery sought to bring out this aspect of Mrs Delany’s work by placing her in a botanical tradition and allowing her work to transcend the level of feminine accomplishments. Truly, the works are striking and yet…I couldn’t help being a little dismayed by the image of a woman fussing with bits of paper, scissors, and glue, nor stop myself wondering why botanical paintings and sketches weren’t accurate enough depictions of plants without all this tiddling about. Heaven knows women’s art has been insulted enough, but if this “new art” was indeed meant as a serious botanical exercise I couldn’t see what advantage it had over pre-existing methods. Perhaps I’ll understand it if I read the book that accompanies the exhibition, Mrs Delany and Her Circle by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts. One more to add to the reading list!

I have to confess, though, that I found it all a bit too prissy for my taste. By way of redressing the balance I went to have a look at the Hogarths. A Rake’s Progress and the wonderfully topical An Election soon restored my equilibrium. This done, I went to the Wallace Collection restaurant and treated myself to afternoon tea.

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill is on until 4 July 2010 – see http://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/future_exhibs/walpole/index.html

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Collection – on line catalogue –http://images.library.yale.edu/strawberryhill/oneitem.asp?id=208

For news about the restoration of Strawberry Hill see http://www.friendsofstrawberryhill.org/

Mrs Delany and Her Circle is on at The John Soane Museum until 1 May 2010 – see http://www.soane.org/next.html

Mrs Delany’s flower pictures were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1897 and you can see them on line – though flat images can’t convey the full effect – at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_results.aspx?searchText=Mary+delany&fromADBC=ad&toADBC=ad&numpages=10&orig=%2fresearch%2fsearch_the_collection_database.aspx¤tPage=2

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