I have been to Strawberry Hill twice now, and on both occasions the weather was foul. Luckily, the house is well signposted from the station, and barely five minutes’ walk away, but I really must try and get myself over there at a slightly more clement time of the year.
My first visit, I find from my diary, was in October 2017: a study day on ‘Collectors and the Country House Library’, well worth the trip. I also note that I made a resolution then to go back the following year in the summer … This time, my motive was to visit ‘Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill’ (which, NB, finishes on 24 February) described – sadly and almost certainly accurately – as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime exhibition [bringing] back to Strawberry Hill some of the most important masterpieces in Horace Walpole’s famous and unique collection’.
The collection was dispersed in 1842, in a 24-day sale (Sundays excepted), which, the auctioneer George Robins asserted on the title page of his catalogue, ‘may fearlessly be proclaimed as the most distinguished gem that has ever adorned the annals of auctions’. The catalogue could be bought in Leipzig and Paris as well as London, but browsers at the Public Views should note that: ‘It is particularly requested, that the Visitors at Strawberry Hill will refrain from touching or displacing the Articles.’
Robins’s ‘Prefatory Remarks’ are followed by an illustrated essay on Strawberry Hill by the novelist Harrison Ainsworth. (An interesting feature of this is that the on the reverse pages, where the illustrations fall, the text is left gappy – this may be because the paper was so light that the show-through would have rendered the text illegible?)
At the end, Robins resumes, with the pious hope that ‘many of the invaluable items in the collection may find a final resting place in the galleries and archives of the British Museum; and he would most respectfully draw their attention of the Trustees of that National Establishment to the present occasion …’. In fact, the other group who whom Robins appeals, those ‘who possess, as Walpole did, a vocation to virtù’ seem to have responded with more enthusiasm than the National Establishment.
Diligent work on the auction records, the archives, and galleries and museums worldwide has resulted in the temporary return of some of the dispersed contents of the house. Some are amazing in their own right, not least the Limoges enamel horn described by Ainsworth (above); others, like some of the Walpole/Waldegrave family paintings, are undoubted masterpieces; and others again (including Horace Walpole’s own attempts at art) are distinctly not.
But they do begin to give an idea of what this immense collection of Stuff would have looked like in situ in the enormous cabinet of curiosities which Strawberry Hill was designed to be.
I’m tempted to go on at great length about individual items in the sale, such as ‘Three paper mosaics of Flowers, one by Mrs Delany, the inventress of the art, in the year 1780 …’ (bought by Owen of New Bond Street for £1.2s.); or one of the (several existing) pictures of Rose the gardener presenting Charles II with a Pine Apple; or the Hogarth portrait of Sarah Malcolm, the notorious murderess (I had no idea that Walpole had owned it); or (nothing less than!) the original ‘Oriental China Cistern’ in which Walpole’s cat, the pensive Selima, had drowned in pursuit of goldfish, her fate being immortalised in an ode by Thomas Gray.
But on the twenty-first day, among items in the Long Gallery, appears
The painting was bought by the duke of Bedford for £535.10s., the second most expensive lot of the day (after the Reynolds portrait of Maria Walpole, widow of James, earl of Waldegrave, later wife of William Henry, duke of Gloucester, which the executor himself purchased for £735. The pendant portrait of her first husband James went for a mere £73).
The double portrait is by an unknown artist (though it has been tentatively attributed to Jan Gossaert (1478–1532), aka Jan Mabuse or Jennyn van Hennegouwe: that’s for another day), and must have been painted after the 1515 secret wedding of Mary, widowed queen of France, and sister of Henry VIII, to Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, one of Henry’s boon companions, whose relationship with the king barely survived once the marriage was known. At least two such images have survived, Walpole’s (still in the collection of the dukes of Bedford at Woburn) and another owned by the earl of Yarborough.
Walpole’s is regarded as much overpainted in the eighteenth century, so one might assume that the Yarborough version has primacy. (The precise date of the painting is also disputed: the style of Mary’s sleeves, for example, apparently suggests that the picture is at least twenty years older than the marriage, and therefore possibly later than her death in 1533, which would also put Gossaert out of the running as artist.) What drew my attention, however, was a small detail – in her right hand, where convention might suggest a Tudor rose or a French lily, Mary grasps an artichoke, with an apparent caduceus/crucifix device emerging from its centre.
The artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) has to be one of the vegetables least likely to have been discovered to be edible – what desperate early inhabitant of the Mediterranean area first took the trouble to wrestle one into submission and find that this particular giant thistle was concealing something rather delicious under all the sharp points and choking bits? (I recall being instructed, the first time I bought any, in the Loire valley, to soak them in salt water for at least an hour, so that all the pernicious insects enfolded among the scales would be driven out – and that was even before the cooking and dressing.)
As a symbol, the artichoke seems to have contradictory meanings: some say sadness, disappointment, delay or secret trouble; others that it means hope for a prosperous future. And, of course, it has a heart, so it means love and devotion. Does it also resemble a royal orb, referring back to Mary’s status as queen of France? (Incidentally, the artichoke is claimed to be one of the many Italian foods introduced to France from Italy by Catherine de Medici, which seems unlikely given that it had reached symbolic status a generation earlier.) The caduceus, or staff of Mercury, arising from the centre, indicates healing, and is also an alchemical symbol, while the Tau-shaped crucifix is presumably to anchor the pagan symbol within Christianity.
Within a century, of course, the artichoke was to figure frequently in the still life genre, standing for nothing but itself, to show off the virtuosity of its painter, but in this unusual royal portrait, it is a distinctly odd and intriguing feature – is that perhaps why Walpole liked it?