Rescuing Horace Walpole: The Achievement of W.S. Lewis

The Collector in Action

The sale of Walpoliana from the collection of Sir Wathen Waller took place three years before Lewis started collecting Walpole. The first 198 lots constituted the largest group of Walpole material offered for sale since 1842, when the contents of Strawberry Hill were dispersed, and Lewis applied himself to tracing the sold lots and trying to recover them. This opening gives an indication of his success, with five of the eight items he had secured noted in red pencil as “W.S.L”. Of the three that got away, two had been acquired by the Houghton Library at Harvard, and one by the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Clayton letter


Unlike other Waller items, Lewis did not have to trace these two manuscripts in the trade or persuade their purchasers to sell them on to him. They had failed to sell in 1921, and were offered for auction again in 1947 after Sir Wathen Waller’s death. They are the text of the Postscript that Walpole wrote to his Historic Doubts on… King Richard The Third, and a copy letter of 31 July 1733 from the courtier Lord Hervey with anecdotes of the Court of George II, annotated in Walpole’s hand.

Perhaps the greatest collecting coup of Lewis’s life was to procure Walpole’s manuscripts, letters, and books from the Waldegrave family, who after Lewis himself held the greatest Walpole collection in private hands. Lewis first contacted the future 12th Earl Waldegrave in 1931, and a close friendship was built up with him and his wife Mary. But it was always clear that Lewis wanted their Walpoliana: exhibited is the first page of a letter of 5 August 1937 showing Lewis’s engaging charm in trying to persuade them to sell. Mary Waldegrave later recalled how Lewis’s conduct could be described as banditry and unscrupulous, but nonetheless the friendship continued until their deaths.

The Waldegraves eventually succumbed to Lewis’s persuasion to sell in 1948 at a valuation provided by Sotheby’s. It is impossible to more than hint at the importance of the Waldegrave collection, a very small selection from whose books and manuscripts is displayed. The entire collection contained the six bound volumes of transcripts of Walpole’s letters to Sir Horace Mann (one of which is exhibited in the case by the window), some fifty other manuscripts, numerous drawings both loose and bound, and 24 books, many of them of the greatest rarity.

As an example of the many drawings included in the Waldegrave purchase, the watercolor displayed is a view taken of Strawberry Hill from the east by the antiquary Francis Grose (1731-91) and given by him to Walpole.

Lewis was appointed in 1941 to create the Central Information Division of the Coordinator of Information—the origin of the Office of Strategic Services. The intention was to harness the skills of scholars in the management and retrieval of information, and Lewis’s extensive use of cross-referenced card index systems in his collecting and editing of Walpole became a model for the organization and recovery of information in a pre-computer world.

The Walpolian project was so central to the Lewises’ lives that it could express itself in the most unlikely circumstances. This is Horace Walpole’s contribution to the War Effort, in the form of a mobile catering unit donated by the Lewises during the blitz and used in Manchester—complete with plaque (visible to the left of the serving hatch) noting that the gift was made in Walpole’s memory.

Part of Lewis’s success as a collector was owing to the ease with which he assimilated himself into English society and bibliophile circles on his regular trips across the Atlantic. This photograph album opening shows Lewis as a guest of S. C. Roberts, the Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, punting on the Cam and taking tea on the lawn of the Master’s Lodge.

These three images of Lewis and Annie Burr on the sofa in the New Library epitomize thirty years of partnership. In the last years of her life Annie Burr took a leading role in cataloguing the prints in the collection, creating over 12,000 index cards. She died of cancer on May 9, 1959. Lewis was devastated, but in the twenty years of widowhood that lay before him he remained dedicated to the publication of the Yale edition and the growth of his collection.