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

The Fantasy

Lewis used this caprice on the idea of a few precious items from his collection saved from destruction as the theme for his last book, Rescuing Horace Walpole (1978). The Fantasy and the book’s title are themselves the theme for this exhibition.

Two years ago the Almighty called me into His office and said, “I am going to destroy every object in your house except one, and you have twenty minutes to choose it.”

I replied, “Lord, I don’t need twenty seconds. I’ll take Bentley’s Drawings and Designs for Strawberry Hill.”

The Almighty nodded solemnly. “For that answer you may save twenty-five more objects.” After a pause He added, “You seem a little dazed, but I know you’re not very good at arithmetic. “ In a louder voice He explained, “Twenty-five and one make twenty-six, and what I’m telling you is that you may save twenty-six objects.” He paused to see if I understood. “I don’t care what they are—books, manuscripts, pictures, furniture—anything you like.”

I managed to say, “Sir, I hope I may have more time to choose them.”

“How much time do you want?”

“At least a year.”

“A year!" His voice was very terrible.

“I think, Sir, I can make the choices fairly quickly, but I would like to write them up as I go along."

And that’s the end of the fantasy and the beginning of this book.

This painting was presented to Lewis by the New York print and picture dealer Harry Bland, but despite writing a graceful letter of thanks, Lewis disliked it intensely and would not hang it in the house. It is not mentioned in any of his writings on himself and his collection. Adrian Lamb (1901–89) was a New York portrait painter. In the painting, Lewis stands behind Walpole and stares purposefully towards his house at Farmington, with its New Library dedicated to Walpole clearly visible. The underlying absurdity of the conceit may well have contributed to Lewis’s distaste.

Sometime after Lewis’s death, this painting was found put away in a closet in the Cowles House. The typed label on the back of the frame, reproduced below, explains why.

This drawing, which was engraved as the frontispiece when Walpole’s Memoirs of George II were published in 1822, is the model from which Adrian Lamb’s painting on the wall to your left is adapted. It shows Walpole the historian under a tree, turning from “the weeping philosopher” Heraclitus to present his manuscript to “the laughing philosopher” Democritus, with Strawberry Hill in the background. In his painting, Lamb copied Walpole’s pose from a drawing by Johann Heinrich Muntz of Walpole in his library, replacing the philosophers with Lewis—but unwittingly enhanced the pretensions of the original image.

Lady Louisa Stuart (1757–1851), whose notes on Jesse’s collection of George Selwyn’s correspondence sparked Lewis’s interest in the eighteenth century, was the daughter of George III’s prime minister Lord Bute. A spinster who had an aversion to appearing in print, she was nonetheless a writer of real ability whose memoirs of the personalities she had known are much regarded. She lived to 94 and is seen here in the last year of her life.

This photograph was used as the frontispiece to the catalogue for an exhibition, The Age of Horace Walpole and Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the inception of the Yale Edition of Walpole’s Correspondence, of which Lewis was the originator and general editor. Lewis is staring at the portrait he owned of Walpole by Allan Ramsay, and their gazes across two centuries appear to be inextricably locked.

This is not Richard Bentley, the designer friend of Walpole, but Richard Bentley (1853–1936) of The Mere, Upton, Slough (shown in the photograph), the descendant of the publishers who in the mid-nineteenth century published various editions of Walpole’s correspondence. One of Lewis’s most delightful and oft-told anecdotes was of his visit in 1935 to The Mere, where he convinced the amiably eccentric octogenarian owner (from whom he had already obtained the originals of Sir Horace Mann’s letters to Walpole) that somewhere hidden amid the various libraries in the house were William Mason’s original letters to Walpole. The letters and telegram displayed record Mr. Bentley’s enthusiastic and ultimately triumphant hunt for them. He then sold Mason’s letters to Lewis for a nominal sum.