The exact year in which this nobleman was born, we have been unable to ascertain with certainty: 1715-16-17 and 1718 have been assigned by his different biographers, but, according to the Gentleman's Magazine, which is no bad authority for dates, his birth took place in 1716. He was the third and youngest son of the first Earl of Orford, by his first wife, and received the early part of his education at Eton, where, as has been stated in our memoir of that poet, he became acquainted with Gray. From Eton he proceeded, in 1734, to King's College, Cambridge, in honour of the founder of which, Henry the Sixth, he wrote some verses that gave no unfavourable omen of his future abilities. They were probably the first production of his pen, and were dated February 1738; in the summer of which year he was appointed inspector-general of the exports and imports, a place which he soon after exchanged for that of usher of the Exchequer. In 1739, he went abroad with Gray, from whom he parted at Reggio, in 1741, as he acknowledged to Mr. Mason, by his own fault; but Walpole's subsequent conduct seems to have been more friendly and generous than that of the poet, though their reconciliation did not revive the former cordiality of either. On his return to England, the subject of our memoir was chosen member of parliament for Callington, in Cornwall; and in March, 1742, he made an animated speech in opposition to a motion for an inquiry into the political conduct of his father. He sat as a borough member in several subsequent parliaments, and terminated his political career, in 1768, without any other senatorial reputation than that of consistency in his Whig principles.
A most important era in his life was the purchase of his villa at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, in 1747. Here he occupied himself in the collection of paintings and curiosities, and having adorned, and extended the size of his house, it became a very fashionable resort for the literati of the metropolis, to whom, every summer, he gave a daily conversazione. In 1749, he was nearly killed by the accidental discharge of a highwayman's pistol, after he had robbed our author, who has humorously related the story in a paper in The World, to which he communicated Nos. Six, Eight, Ten, Fourteen, Twenty-eight, One Hundred and Three, One Hundred and Sixty-eight, and One Hundred and Ninety-five.
In 1752, appeared his first regular publication, entitled Edes Walpoliana, being a description of his father's splendid mansion at Houghton, in Norfolk. In 1757, he opened a printing-press at Strawberry Hill, the first production of which was Gray's Odes, and subsequently were published, an edition and translation of part of Heulzer's Travels, Lord Whitworth's Account of Russia, Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, &c., being his Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors. Of these he printed but a few copies, and by parting with them only as presents, his press soon became an object of fame and curiosity. In 1761 appeared, in two volumes, quarto, his Anecdotes of Painting in England, compiled from the papers of the artist, George Vertue, to which two additional volumes were subsequently added. In 1764, he wrote and published a pamphlet in defence of the conduct of his friend, General Conway, who had been dismissed from the army on account of a vote given in parliament on the question of general warrants. In 1765, he published, as a translation from the Italian, the well-known romance of The Castle of Otranto; but in the following year, in a second edition, he acknowledged himself to be the original author. In 1766, he drew just censure upon himself for inflaming the dispute between Rousseau and the historian Hume, by writing to the former a letter in French, under the name of the King of Prussia, in which he displayed more wit than liberality or benevolence towards authors by profession.
It was about this time, being at Paris, that he became acquainted with Madame du Deffaud, to whom, although blind and seventy years of age, he is said to have remained warmly attached until her death in 1780. His conduct and letters justify the assertion; on her pension of six thousand francs being reduced to a moiety of that sum, he insisted on paying her the other half; the only bequests, however, which she left to Walpole were her dog and her manuscripts. In 1768, the subject of our memoir, as has been already stated, retired from public life, and in the same year he produced his Historic Doubts of the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third. His object was to clear the character of that monarch from the obloquy ordinarily attached to it; but his arguments, more ingenious than accurate, failed to convince the public in general, and were refuted for the most part by answers made to the work. In particular, the evidence from the wardrobe-roll was controverted by Dr. Miller and Mr. Masters, in papers read before the Society of Antiquaries; which so disgusted Walpole, that he ordered his name to be struck out of the list of their members. In the year last-mentioned he printed fifty copies of the tragedy of The Mysterious Mother, which he at first professed to have founded on a story he had heard in his youth, but subsequently discovering that it had appeared in Bishop Hall's works, and had been twice dramatized, he appears to have been anxious to suppress it. Some years afterwards, extracts from it being given in Woodfall's Public Advertiser, he wrote a very contemptuous letter to the proprietor, indignantly complaining of the publication of his tragedy, demanding its discontinuance, and stating that he would purchase its suppression at any price. This, however, seems to have been a piece of hypocrisy and affectation; as he had, at that time, printed the tragedy in the first volume of his collected works, and was, in reality, pleased rather than offended with the praises of Woodfall, though he affected to despise them. About this time he was concerned in the transactions that occurred between him and the unfortunate Chatterton, in our memoir of whom it will be seen that Walpole did not deserve the extent of censure which has been bestowed on him.
In 1771 and 1775, he again visited Paris; and, in 1791, he succeeded, by the death of his nephew, to the title of Earl of Orford, but this elevation made so little alteration in his habits and manners, that he did not even trouble himself to take his seat in the house of peers. He continued to pass his time in the pursuit of literature, and the society of his friends, until the period of his death, which took place on the 2nd of March, 1797. He died of the gout, of which he had been afflicted, at intervals, throughout his life, and left a fortune of £91,000.
In person Mr. Walpole was short and slender; his countenance long retained its boyish appearance, and was, upon the whole, prepossessing; his eyes were particularly fine; but his smile is said to have been unpleasing, and his laugh uncouth. His manners were agreeable, and he greatly excelled in conversation, but he was never known to wound the feelings of any one for the sake of exciting a smile in others, although he is said to have talked as wittily as he wrote. He possessed a kind and obliging disposition, but in a pecuniary sense, no man was less of a patron; "an artist," he used to say, "has his pencils, and an author his pens, and the public must reward them as it happens." It does not appear that he, in one single instance, assisted an author or artist with money; and he left the whole of his property to persons in his own sphere, who were probably in no want of addition to their fortunes. His pride of birth was paramount to the fame of arts, letters, or philosophy, and led him to despise nature and humour in every form that was not aristocratic. For this reason he affected a great dislike of Fielding's Tom Jones: "it might," he said, "be nature; it might be humour; but it was of a kind which could not interest him." He professed humility, and deference to the public taste, but no man was more solicitous of obtaining its applause, or more impatient of its disapprobation. In his habits he was somewhat effeminate and luxurious; when his friends used to smile at the care he took of his person, he would say, "My back is the same with my face, and my neck is like my nose." He was, however, totally free from intemperance; and coffee and ice-water are said to have been his favourite, and almost his only, beverage. An edition of his works was published in 1798, containing, besides those already mentioned, his letters to a variety of correspondents, written with much wit. Sir Walter Scott speaks very highly of this part of Walpole's performances, and there are some critics who prefer his epistolary productions even to those of Warburton. His Anecdotes of Painting, and Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors, are the works on which his reputation chiefly rests; they are useful and curious of their class, but do not entitle the author to a place in the foremost ranks of literature.