English novelist, art historian, and politician Horace Walpole (1717–1797) gained much of his celebrity as the author of the first “Gothic” novel, a medievalesque horror story. Art historians also credit him with single-handedly reviving popular interest in Gothic art and architecture, which took threedimensional form in the ornate villa he constructed on the outskirts of London.
The son of Great Britain's first prime minister, Horace Walpole dabbled rather ineffectually in Whig politics as a member of the House of Commons before inheriting a peerage as the fourth earl of Orford. Something of a dilletante, he secured his place in English letters as the author of an influential horror novel, titled The Castle of Otranto. Walpole also inspired the architectural movement known as Gothic Revivalism through the enduring popularity of his uniquely designed and many-spired suburban London home, which he dubbed Strawberry Hill.
Although Walpole adopted Horace as his first name, his birth name was the Latinate Horatio, bestowed in honor of several illustrious ancestors on his father's side. He was the youngest of six children and was born in London on September 24, 1717, to Catherine Shorter Walpole, whose family were prosperous timber merchants in Kent. His father, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), was a trusted advisor to both King George I and his Hanoverian successor, George II.
The Walpoles were from Norfolk in East Anglia and traced their ancestry to a 13th-century bishop of Norwich, the cathedral city that served as the commercial and ecclesiastical center of this region. Walpole's paternal grandfather, also Robert, was a prominent Whig politician and fathered 19 children. Horatio Walpole's father spent a lifetime in government service, becoming First Lord of the Treasury and de facto prime minister of Great Britain in April of 1721, when his youngest son was three years old. His 21-year tenure in this role would be the longest in British history, although the term “prime minister” did not actually come into use until much later. The elder Walpole also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer for a total of 16 years and was elevated to the peerage as the first earl of Orford, a title he declined to accept for himself but permitted his eldest son to assume.
The Walpole marriage was a troubled one, and as a boy Walpole lived primarily with his mother at 5 Arlington Street in Piccadilly, London; his father, meanwhile, began construction on Houghton Hall, a magnificent Palladian home in Norfolk, shortly after becoming prime minister in the early 1720s. In the spring of 1727, nine-year-old Horatio was enrolled at Eton College, the boarding school his father had attended. It was here that he began to forge lifelong friendships with men who rose to professional or political influence later in their lives. The prolific correspondence he carried out over a seven-decade span and preserved remains a rich source of insight on the lives of 18th-century British culture and politics.
Walpole's undemanding career permitted him to spend an extended period abroad, and he made the traditional grand tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy. During part of the journey, he was accompanied by a friend from Eton and Cambridge, the poet Thomas Gray. In 1741, the final year of his father's tenure as prime minister, Walpole returned to England and won election to the House of Commons. Although the young parliamentarian represented Callington in Cornwall for 13 years, he never made the journey to meet with his constituents in the southwest of England. The elder Walpole died in March of 1745, and the bulk of his estate passed to Horace's older brother Robert, who took over Houghton Hall as the second earl of Orford. As a younger son, Walpole was nonetheless provided with the small house in Piccadilly on Arlington Street where he had lived with his mother as a boy.
From 1754 to 1757, Walpole served in the House of Commons as the Whig politician representing Castle Rising in Norfolk, a seat that had been held by his father and paternal grandfather. Castle Rising was one of the so-called “rotten boroughs,” an electoral district in which the number of eligible voters was small enough to essentially handpick a candidate to send to Westminster Palace, where both the House of Commons and House of Lords convened. Between 1757 to 1768, Walpole was returned to the House of Commons, this time as the member for King's Lynn, in Norfolk. As a Whig—indeed, as the third son of the founding figure of the political movement that later evolved into a formal center-left electoral party—Walpole adhered to the idea of limiting the powers of the monarch to forestall rebellion and tyranny.
Despite his 27-year service in the House of Commons, Walpole is not remembered as a politician or a Whig of particular influence. As his biographers have pointed out, even as a youth he had been frail and prone to various ailments. As an adult, he remained retiring and more interested in art than in politics. In addition, his reedy voice likely inhibited him from speaking during typically raucous Commons debates. For Walpole, the preferred form of communication was the quill pen, as proven by the trove of 7,500 letters that were collected and published by Yale University in 1937 and which are now digitally preserved in a 48-volume archive.
Although he exchanged letters with many people, Walpole's penchant for letter-writing was matched by another Horace, the veteran British diplomat and salonist Sir Horace Mann, whom he met in Florence in 1739. Eleven years later, Walpole wrote to Mann and vented his frustration over a weeks-long parliamentary debate involving the African Company of Merchants, which had been created by an act of parliament in 1750 to safeguard the rights of British traders with commercial interests in Ghana and other parts of Africa's Gold Coast. In a missive dated February 25, 1750, he noted of this debate that “we, the British Senate, the temple of Liberty, and bulwark of Protestant Christianity, have … been pondering methods to make more effectual that horrid traffic of selling negroes. It has appeared to us that six and forty thousand of these wretches are sold every year to our plantations alone!—It chills one's blood.”
Walpole's zeal for collecting art and antiquities began during his early tour of the European continent, and he finally found a home for his growing collection a decade later. Acquiring a small piece of property in Twickenham, a community on the Thames River in what was then the outskirts of southwest London, he began the three-decades-long project building an elaborate mock-medieval castle with design elements that replicated several features of Gothic architecture. He named his home Strawberry Hill and filled it with an astonishing hoard of 4,000 pieces of art and decoration. Walpole opened his home to curious fee-paying visitors while also using it as his primary residence.
It was in the breakfast room at Strawberry Hill that Walpole penned what became another sensationally prescient cultural artifact: the first Gothic novel. Inspired by a vivid dream, The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764 under a pseudonym, and its introductory notes claim it to be the transcription of a centuries-old manuscript recording the true saga of a beleaguered Italian noble family. There was, in fact, a castle in the city of Otranto, which is located at the boot-heel corner of the Italian peninsula. Walpole never visited it, however, and he later confessed to a friend that he had selected the place-name in his novel's title by scanning a map.
In Walpole's fictional fable, the gloomy castle of Otranto is the site of several improbable plot twists involving an accursed family and a thwarted love. Sir Walter Scott, in a foreword to an 1811 edition of The Castle of Otranto, cited the story's medieval elements—castles, dungeons, curses, supernatural transformations, and chivalric honor—as Walpole's attempt to incite “the feeling that carries us back to ages of feudal power and papal superstition.” As a storyteller, Scott continued, Walpole seemed to have intended “not merely to excite surprise and terror, by the introduction of supernatural agency, but to wind up the feelings of his reader till they became for a moment identified with those of a ruder age, which ‘Held each strange tale devoutly true.’”
In addition to his horror novel, Walpole produced a number of other tomes, among them 1762's Anecdotes of Painting in England, a respected study of British art history. Not surprisingly, he was also fascinated by the historical dramas of England's medieval era and wrote a treatise on the beleaguered 15th-century king Richard III. Adding to his cultural legacy was the 1780 volume On Modern Gardening, although The Castle of Otranto remains his most influential work. Four decades after its publication, the gothic-horror genre of fiction had become so popular among the British reading public that Jane Austen spoofed it in her 1803 novel Northanger Abbey.
A true English eccentric, Walpole never married, and cultural historians and LGBTQ scholars have referenced him in chronicling historical figures who pursued samesex relationships while openly ignoring prevailing cultural mores. An anonymous writer—likely one of Walpole's political foes in the House of Commons—made reference to the earl's lifestyle in a scurrilous pamphlet that appeared in 1746. After this, the son of the esteemed first prime minister retreated from all but pro forma appearances at Westminster. Instead, he spent much of his time at Strawberry Hill, which became a meeting place for like-minded men and women such as Anne Seymour Damer, a lesbian sculptor whom he had mentored.
Walpole received the title of fourth earl of Orford late in life, following the deaths of his older brother Robert and Robert's mentally troubled son. That hereditary peerage ended at his passing, at age 79, in London on March 2, 1797. Damer inherited Strawberry Hill upon Walpole's death.
Mowl, Timothy, Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider, Murray, 1996.
Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto (replica of 1811 edition), introduction by Sir Walter Scott, Dover Publications, 1966.
Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, summer 2006, George E. Haggerty, “Queering Horace Walpole,” p. 543.
Times (London, England), March 21, 2015, Damian Arnold, “Doors Open to Walpole's Gothic Mystery,” p. 88.
Horace Walpole's Correspondence at Yale University, http://images.library.yale.edu/hwcorrespondence/page.asp?vol=20&seq=142&type=b (January 15, 2018), “Volume 20: Letters, 15 November 1748 NS–18 September 1756.”□