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

Origins of a Collection

Lewis recorded in the opening paragraph of his memoir Collector’s Progress (1951) that at the age of six he collected shells at Santa Cruz, California. This photograph shows him at a younger age, but captures the triumph of possession in the incipient collector. Many years later, he wrote “An ardent collector is as assured of a happy life as one can be. It makes no difference what he collects, Blake, Donne, Horace Walpole—or seashells.”

Over 65 years later Lewis received and preserved another seashell, given to him in 1965 (Lewis has added the date) by the seven-year old Caroline Kennedy, the niece of his wife Annie Burr, holidaying in Newport, Rhode Island.

For three summers after his marriage to Annie Burr Auchincloss, Lewis stayed with Annie Burr’s mother at Hammersmith Farm, Newport, where Lewis found the strict social regime of tennis, golf, and sailing unappealing. In later years they stayed at the cottage on the Hammersmith Farm estate known as The Castle, a clapboarded house of c. 1700, while Hammersmith Farm enjoyed celebrity as the summer White House of President Kennedy. For all the 1920s glamour, it is noticeable that Lewis is carrying a book.

The Lewis’s Guest Book opens with this vision of 1920s life, the bachelor Lewis entertaining his friends (including Annie Burr, seen with him behind the garden gate). Guests on these pages include Edward Streeter, an early mentor to Lewis as collector, and the playwright Thornton Wilder, whom Lewis had known at school. Over the next fifty years the Guest Book opens a window on the Lewis’s social life, with numerous evocative photographs, many of them taken by Annie Burr.

These notes by Lady Louisa Stuart are the seed from which Lewis’s collection evolved. They were purchased in York in 1923, slipped into a collection of letters to the eighteenth-century wit George Selwyn. Lewis recounted how their engaging anecdotes were read out after a dinner with friends one evening that fall and caught his imagination. In tracing the identity of Lady Louisa and finding out whether these notes had been published (only a selection had) he repeatedly came across the name of Horace Walpole.

If Lady Louisa Stuart’s notes sparked Lewis’s interest, these letters from Walpole to the Scottish historian and poet John Pinkerton (1758–1826) sealed his fate. They were lot 100 in a book auction Lewis walked into in London in February 1924. On reading them, he was so entranced by Walpole’s style and content that he settled down to read Walpole’s entire correspondence, and decided to devote himself to collecting this then under-appreciated writer. The catalogue cover displayed was endorsed by Lewis in 1962 “The copy I had at the sale & that is the formation of my library.”

There were about one hundred card index systems maintained at the Library, recording and cross-referencing information, but Lewis claimed that the index that meant most to him was that listing the gifts of Walpoliana he had received. This is one such gift, a view of Strawberry Hill based on the larger fleuron used in some of the books published by Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Press. It was given by the artist Joseph Reed, for many years a Professor at Wesleyan University.

This drawing of the hall and staircase at Strawberry Hill comes from a scrapbook of drawings and designs by the talented artist Richard Bentley (1708–82), who designed the staircase. The scrapbook included thirty drawings for Strawberry Hill, and was the item singled out by Lewis in The Fantasy as the first item from his collection that he would save from destruction. Bentley was with Walpole and John Chute (1701–76) a member of the Committee that presided in the 1750s over the design of the house. Lewis found the book in a London bookshop in 1926.

In these four lever-arch loose-leaf volumes Lewis recorded the owners around the world of all the Walpoliana that he had traced. None were safe from an offer, whether individuals who had collected or inherited material, or institutional owners. The lists of items are compiled in painstaking detail, and record an impressive number of objects secured and marked “WSL”—including on the page shown some of a series of plays collected and bound by Walpole under the title The Theatre of George III, and acquired by exchange by Lewis from the Folger Library in Washington.

Allen Hazen (1904-1977) taught at Columbia University, but also provided Lewis with the essential tools for his collecting in his Bibliography of the Strawberry Hill Press (1942), Bibliography of Horace Walpole (1948), and his three-volume Catalogue of Horace Walpole’s Library (1969), a painstaking reconstruction of the library at Strawberry Hill. This is Lewis’s copy of the second volume of the Catalogue, opened to show Lewis’s initials against virtually every item listed—some of the plays noted in the black books exhibited to the left that had been disbound and separated. Note item 3 from volume 25, where Lewis’s attempt to persuade the Huntington Library was rebuffed.