strawberry hill

Absent Presences at Strawberry Hill – thoughts from the Lewis Walpole Library

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It’s the first day of my two-week research visit to the Lewis Walpole Library, and I’ve just finished looking through the anonymous volume Rarities from Strawberry Hill, made sometime around the 1890s. The volume (essentially a scrapbook) once brought together letters from Walpole’s voluminous correspondence, printed portraits, clippings, playbills, bookplates (including the above example, Anne Damer’s, based on a design by her close friend Agnes Berry) a lock of hair, and even two miniature portraits, who are conspicuous in their absence from the volume, leaving two holes where they were once fitted (pictured below). Along with a number of other objects from the book – including various letters and the aforementioned lock of hair – the miniatures have been removed and preserved elsewhere: in the case of miniatures, these are now on display at Strawberry Hill itself, where they now tell a different narrative in a different setting.

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This dialogue of absence and presence, and how these states intersect with how we construct the history of the eighteenth century, reminded me of an earlier post I made here, regarding Strawberry Hill itself. When visiting the house last Summer, I bemoaned the absence of any kind of narrative regarding Walpole’s queerness, despite the prevalence of this within scholarship on Walpole and his friendships. I hope that the chapter I’m researching here (on Anne Damer’s inheritance of Strawberry Hill and queer heirlooming) at the Lewis Walpole Library can meaningfully contribute to these conversations, revealing some of those things that are sorely absent from the scholarship on Walpole.

Design History Society Research Travel Grant Report – The British Library & Strawberry Hill

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Thanks to a 2016 Research Travel Grant from the Design History Society, I was able to conduct crucial primary research for the completion of my monograph, which is provisionally titled Home Ties: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion in British Domestic Space, 1750-1840. It is the first study to focus on the complex relationship between emotion, identity, and the material culture of the home during this period, exploring how the decoration of domestic space allowed contemporaries to express themselves, to show affection to their loved ones, and to construct the homes in which they lived.

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Specifically, a Design History Society Research Travel Grant enabled me to conduct research for three of the book’s chapters, which examine descriptions of interior design in the travel writing of Caroline Lybbe Powys, reputation management and the interiors of John Wilkes’s retirement cottage on the Isle of Wight, and Anne Seymour Damer’s inheritance of Horace Walpole’s Gothic revival home, Strawberry Hill, in turn. At the British Library, I consulted the papers, journals, and correspondence of Caroline Lybbe Powys, Anne Seymour Damer, and John Wilkes, whilst at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Wellcome Library, I viewed the correspondence of Mary Berry, a close friend of Damer and Walpole. I discovered many exciting finds in archives, including a number of previously unknown portraits, as well as a recipe for shellwork cement shared between friends, highlighting the collaborative nature of such craft practices. I also read many letters describing key elements of the interiors of Walpole and Damer’s homes, which I will continue to think about during my forthcoming research trip to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library, where I’ll also be investigating the relationship between the two figures.

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The Grant also allowed me to visit Strawberry Hill itself, which has been the subject of a sensitive restoration and was reopened to the public in 2010. Being able to walk through the spaces so lovingly described by its owners and viewers was immensely important and highly evocative, particularly for a project concerned with issues of emotion and experience. The visit also revealed that despite the importance of Damer and Walpole’s relationship, the narratives of queer inheritance and ownership that are at the heart of my book chapter are entirely absent from Strawberry Hill’s current public presentation.

I’m excited to utilise this archival research in my forthcoming monograph, and would like to thank the Design History Society, the British Library, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Wellcome Library for making this research possible.

N.B. A version of this post will also appear on the Design History Society blog.