In the run-up to the Lost Treasures Exhibition (from 20thOctober-24thFebruary), we will be shining the spotlight on a selected number of objects to give you an exclusive preview of what is to come at Strawberry Hill this Autumn. For this episode of Strawberry Hill Spotlights, we have the opportunity to explore an entire room here at Strawberry Hill. Join us as we discover how Walpole dedicated an entire room to Henry VIII and his Tudor court, transforming it into a Tudor time capsule.
The Eighteenth Century Tudor Time Capsule
A visitor to Strawberry Hill in the summer of 2018 would have been surprised upon entering the Holbein Chamber. It does have a very theatrical screen across the middle of the room which is in that Gothic style which characterises much of Horace Walpole’s building at Strawberry Hill. Yet there was something else, a distinct sense of standing amongst a group of Tudor courtiers in a period setting. A sea of Tudor faces on the wall was actually a set of brilliantly realistic modern replicas of a series of Holbein drawings that are in the Royal Collection at Windsor. The period setting was achieved with characteristic Tudor furniture set in a relatively empty room, albeit with fabulous architecture.
What was it like in the eighteenth century when Walpole was in residence?
By the late 1750s Strawberry Hill was bursting at the seams with his collection and it was clear that additional rooms were urgently required. After all, Walpole just loved buying objects and he had no intention of curtailing this habit. Walpole was close to the engraver and art historian George Vertue and knew that Vertue had copied 33 lost Holbein drawings which had been re-discovered in a desk at Kensington Palace in 1727. When Vertue died, Walpole snapped up the copies of the Holbein drawings and many other items from his widow. Suddenly he now had enough ammunition to create a special theme for his first extra room; this was the Holbein Chamber which was completed in 1759 and it was what we would today call a ‘Tudor time capsule’. As well as the Vertue copies of Holbein’s work, there were another 56 portraits in the room, all of them from the Tudor period. All the big names were here, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, to name a few, along with other notable royalty from
across Europe. There was a table and eight chairs, all black and in the style that Walpole had seen at Cardinal’s Wolsey’s house in Esher. In the corner of the room was a four- poster bed covered in purple cloth with ostrich feather trimmings. The bed was fit for royalty and the walls were painted purple to emphasise the regal style. As a finishing touch there were two well- known antique pieces from the sixteenth century; the Glastonbury Chair and the Cardinal’s red hat worn by Thomas Wolsey himself. There was one deliberate exclusion from the room; Walpole despised Henry VII regarding him as mean, nasty and a philistine. In an adjacent room Walpole displayed the bust of a clearly troubled man whom he (wrongly) reckoned was Henry VII in the agony of death (currently on display in the Star Chamber), and there was no picture of him in the Holbein Chamber.
Henry VIII never considered himself as a Tudor- that was a name for a low born family from Wales who were his distant ancestors so swept under the carpet. The first writer to refer to a Tudor dynasty was David Hume in his popular ‘History of England’ in 1759; however, Walpole did not like Hume or his historical writing. Walpole never used the name ‘Tudor’; he just referred to ‘Henry VIII and his family’.
Which objects have now returned to the Holbein Chamber for the Lost Treasures Exhibition?
Under the window will be the Glastonbury Chair; the original dates to about 1500 and was made for the head of Glastonbury Abbey. It was so comfortable that copies were quickly made and Walpole probably owned a copy rather than the original. Just to the side of the door there is a large showcase with a single exhibit- the sprawling ceremonial red hat of Cardinal Wolsey. In Walpole’s time there had been no cardinal in England since the Tudor period, so it was tempting to assume this was Wolsey’s hat. Walpole claimed a long and most unlikely provenance; it may have been true – we just don’t know!
There are five portraits coming back on loan and these include two gems which illustrate the challenges of identification and attribution. In 1742 Walpole had acquired an unusual and highly accomplished double portrait dated 1559; this was his first acquisition of a significant piece painted in England. He obtained it from the Earl of Oxford and they both reckoned it showed the Duchess of Suffolk and her second husband Adrian Stokes. We now know it is actually Mary Neville, Lady Dacre and her son Gregory Fiennes. Both the Duchess and Lady Dacre had interesting stories to be told about them- just the thing that appealed to Walpole! The identity of the artist was hinted at by the monogram HE, Walpole thought this was the symbol of Lucas de Heere, but it was actually painted by Hans Eworth.
Underneath the double portrait will be a portrait of a young Italian lady. This was a gift to Horace from his favourite nephew George, 4th Earl of Cholmondeley. Walpole could not ascertain the name of the sitter but as he studied the picture, he saw that the background was in the same style as adopted by Leonardo da Vinci in some of his works, ergo he decided that the portrait was probably by Leonardo. We now know that the sitter is Costanza Fregoso from the ruling family of Genoa and that the artist was Raphael. Swings and roundabouts indeed. It is easy to mock Walpole’s mistakes but he got many things right and was one of the first collectors to record provenance and to systematically study the history of portrait painting including miniatures. His Anecdotes of Painting in England and the catalogue of the 1842 sale of Strawberry Hill’s artefacts are still important reference points for many works of art today.
As visitors leave the Holbein there will be a flash of blue on the wall near the door. On loan from the British Museum is an exquisite drawing, just nine inches by six inches, a Holbein original of a man in a blue cloak. The sitter is unknown but it seems to be a drawing of a masquerade habit rather than a practical outdoor costume. Finally, before we leave the room, an admission. The table and eight chairs that Walpole claimed were in the style of Wolsey’s furniture, we now know that they were all made in the late seventeenth century in India. But until the nineteenth century everybody followed Walpole and believed that these black, rectangular pieces were early Tudor, so let us also suspend our disbelief and just think of them as Tudor.
All things considered, we really do have our very own Tudor time capsule in the Lost Treasures Exhibition!