Sunday, 3 October 2010

"At last, it’s Strawberry Hill for ever" - William Waldegrave, Provost of Eton College (The Times)

Lord (William) Waldegrave has written a splendid piece in The Times about Strawberry Hill, largely the creation of Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford (1717 - 1797). Walpole's portrait (below) was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1756.

The piece includes praise for John Major and his 'invention' of the National Lottery. I regard the latter as a social disaster and, as subscribers to The Times are permitted to add comments on line, I have added an appropriate comment.

"At last, it’s Strawberry Hill for ever.

Walpole’s Gothic villa is the beginning and end of the story of preserving our heritage

Strawberry Hill, the little villa in Twickenham that Horace Walpole converted into his fantastic Neo-Gothic “Castle of my Ancestors” between 1748 and 1790, reopens to the public today. It is the latest triumphant episode in a story that illustrates almost every aspect of the rollercoaster history of England’s heritage over the past two and a half centuries. To start at the end, it is yet another monument to the greatest of all Britain’s patrons of the arts in the late 20th century: John Major.

Without his invention of the National Lottery (and it was very personally his invention), there would have been no Heritage Lottery Fund to supply more than half of the £9 million needed for the restoration, brilliantly achieved by Peter Inskip and the builders Bowmans. It would just never have happened. The house would have continued its decline until some merciful accident of fire or tempest put it out of its agony.

To start at the beginning, there might not have been the heritage industry itself, engaged in making popular the saving of the past, without Walpole. Of course the credit is not his alone. But as Britain powered into the first of all the industrial revolutions he perhaps more than any other single person infected our national psyche with that creative antiquarianism that saw to it that the dark satanic mills did not pulverise everything from the past, as for example China’s industrial revolution is pulverising the ancient heritage of that great nation.

Walpole not only reinvented Gothic and wrote The Castle of Otranto to go with his wooden battlements and papier-mâché ceilings; he preserved old glass, collected coins, armour, miniatures and books and rescued historic objects that he bought in the equivalents of car boot sales.

Not all were quite what he thought they were: but no matter. He made people look at what was destroyed when they modernised a church or built a Palladian house, tearing down the ancient manor on the site as they did so. In all this he was leading the first campaign for the physical rescue of the past from the destruction of progressive modernity. He is the progenitor of all the heroic Betjemans and Lees-Milnes and Cornforths who came later.

He did it quite consciously: his 1784 Description of the house is part interior decorator’s catalogue, part museum curator’s guide. He wanted to popularise as well as record. The house was open from the beginning; from the beginning (although he thought carefully about its preservation) he took steps to ensure that even if the worst happened and his collection were dispersed and his house destroyed, it should be meticulously recorded. After all, he had watched his spendthrift brother sell off the great collection of his father, the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, from Houghton Hall, his Norfolk home. The pictures, he wrote, were “transported almost out of the sight of Europe”, to the court of Catherine the Great. If that happened to his objects they would at least have in his writings a “genealogy not so noble as those of the peerage, but on a par with race horses”.

In his day there was no National Trust, no Heritage Lottery Fund (although a one-off lottery did help to build the British Museum). His transmission mechanism for the house and collection was my own family — respectable, second-rank aristocrats with a good record, it must have seemed, of negotiating the hazards of English life throughout a good many dangerous centuries. But lest we fall into the sentimental trap of thinking that old families will always look after their inheritance, observe the behaviour of the Waldegrave family in its senior line between the Napoleonic War and the 1840s. Gambling. Lawsuits over legitimacy. Prison. A ménage à trois between two dissolute Waldegrave brothers and a young adventuress at Strawberry Hill, ending in the chaotic sale of 1842 that dispersed Horace’s collection to the four winds. Sir Simon Jenkins is quite right to try to install a family feel in National Trust houses, but he needs to pick and choose which periods of which families. Labradors, yes. Bailiffs and gamblers, drink and whores, perhaps not.

In the end, however, Horace’s own spirit is triumphant. The house has re-emerged like a butterfly from a chrysalis of neglect. The good Vincentian Fathers and their successors who, in another implausible twist, preserved the house through most of the 20th century, passed it on to the trust of which (making some small atonement for the past) I am a member, which has restored it. The result is stunning. Go and see it, not just because of its importance to the history of art, or even just to marvel at the skill with which this glittering little jewel of a house has been restored; but also because Horace Walpole invented the idea that preserving our heritage need not be a solemn affair: it could simply be fun. And Strawberry Hill is fun.

Lord Waldegrave of North Hill is Provost of Eton College."

William Waldegrave writes beautifully and eloquently and I can't wait to visit the newly-reopened Strawberry Hill, but there is another side to this piece. I believe that John Major's worst deed was his 'invention' of the National Lottery. I have never bought a ticket and I never will. But whether I buy a ticket or not is neither here nor there. What worries me enormously is that millions of ordinary people who might not be able to afford it - and have no idea that they might be supporting the likes of Strawberry Hill - are buying tickets in the hope that 'it' might be them this week or next week or whenever. I witness this every day when I collect my Times: those ahead of me at the checkout, especially on Saturdays, often spend £10 or £20 on lottery tickets and, sadly, they often give the appearance of - how shall we say? - being less well-off. The national lottery is a voluntary tax on the poor to enhance the interests of the rich and cultured few and to fill the pockets of those whose skill and expertise lies in obtaining grants from such as the 'Heritage Lottery Fund.' I wish that our country and its people had never had this iniquity inflicted upon them. (GW).

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