HORACE WALPOLE, third and youngest son of sir Robert Walpole, first earl of Orford, by his first wife Catherine Shorter, was born in 1718, and received the early part of his education at Eton, where he first became known to the celebrated Mr. Gray, whose friendship at that early period he cultivated, and whose esteem and regard he retained, until the difference arose between them which we have noticed in our account of that celebrated poet. From Eton he went to King's-college, Cambridge; but, according to the practice of men of rank and fortune at that time, left the university without taking any degree. While there he wrote "Verses in Memory of King Henry the Sixth, founder of the college," which are dated Feb. 2, 1738, and are probably the first production of his pen. In the same 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. To these were added the post of comptroller of the pipe and clerk of the estreats; all which he held unto his death.
Finding himself disinclined to enter so early into the business of parliament, he prevailed on his father to permit him to go abroad, and Mr. Gray consented to accompany him in his travels. They left England on the 29th of March, 1739, and took their route by the way of France to Italy, viewing whatever was remarkable in the several places they visited, and at some of them, particularly Florence, residing several months. About July 1741 the two friends came to a rupture, and parted at Reggio, each pursuing his journey homewards separately. Of this quarrel, the circumstances, as we have remarked in Mr. Gray's article, are not clearly known; but Mr. Walpole enjoined Mr. Mason to charge him with the chief blame, confessing, that more attention, complaisance, and deference, to a warm friendship, and superior judgment and prudence, might have prevented a rupture which gave much uneasiness to them both, and a lasting concern to the survivor. A reconciliation is said to have been effected between them by a lady who wished well to both parties; but the cordiality which had subsisted between them never wholly returned, as Mr. Walpole was entirely unnoticed by Mr. Gray in his last will. Mr. Walpole, however, was the first person to whom, in 1750, Mr. Gray communicated his celebrated "Elegy in a Country Church-yard," and by him it was communicated to several persons of distinction. In 1758, also, Walpole employed Mr. Bentley to ornament an edition of his friend's poems with beautiful designs and engravings, and printed it at his own press at Strawberry-hill.
On Mr. Walpole's return to England, be was chosen member for Callington, in the parliament which met in June 1741, and had soon an opportunity of evincing, that he was not likely to become either a silent or inactive member. On the 23d of March 1741-2 , on a motion being made for an inquiry into the conduct of sir Robert Walpole for the preceding ten years, he opposed the proposition in a speech of some length, with great spirit, and greatly to the credit of his filial piety. He was not, however, a frequent speaker, and had no great relish for parliamentary duties. In 1747, he was chosen for the borough of Castle Rising and for King's Lynn, in 1754 and 1761.
The tenor of his life was not much varied by accident or adventure; though about 1749 he narrowly escaped the pistol of a highwayman, the relation of which we shall give in his own words, in one of his "Worlds." "An acquaintance of mine was robbed a few years ago, and very near shot through the head by the going-off of the pistol of the accomplished Mr. Maclean; yet the whole affair was conducted with the greatest good-breeding on both sides. The robber, who had only taken a purse this way because he had that morning been disappointed of marrying a great fortune, no sooner returned to his lodgings, than he sent the gentleman two letters of excuses, which with less wit than the epistles of Voiture, had ten times more natural and easy politeness in the turn of their expression. In the postscript he appointed a meeting at Tyburn at twelve at night, where the gentleman might purchase again any trifles he had lost; and my friend has been blamed for not accepting the rendezvous, as it seemed liable to be construed by ill-natured people into a doubt of the honour of a man who had given him all the satisfaction in his power for having unluckily been near shooting him through the head."
"The World" was a well-known periodical paper, in which he assisted the editor Mr. Moore, by writing Nos. 6, 8, 10, 14, 28, 103, 168, 195, and the concluding "World Extraordinary," containing the character of Henry Fox, then secretary at war, afterwards lord Holland.
In 1752, his first publication (except some Poems in Dodsley's collection, and a jeu d'esprit in the "Museum") appeared, entitled "Aedes Walpoliana," describing his father's magnificent palace at Houghton, in Norfolk, and the noble collection of pictures it contained, which the pecuniary embarrassments of the late earl of Orford (Mr. Walpole's nephew) obliged him to dispose of to the empress of Russia. It is remarkable that Mr. Walpole, as appears by one of his letters in the British Museum, with all his family-partiality and taste for the arts, thought the value of this collection greatly over-rated.
In 1757 he published "A Letter from Xo-Ho, a Chinese philosopher at London, to his friend Lien-Chi at Pekin: a spirited and elegant performance, chiefly on the politics of the day. It went through five editions in a fortnight.
This year he set up a printing-press at Strawberry-hill, at which most of his own performances, and some curious works of other authors were printed. Its first production was Gray's Odes, and this was followed by the edition and translation of part of Hentzner's Travels lord Whitworth's account of Russia, Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, &c. By limiting the number of copies of each work, and parting with them only as presents, he created a species of fame and curiosity after the productions of his press, which was then quite new, and unquestionably very gratifying to himself. We need not analyze this kind of reputation, as it is now better known in ours than in his days. In this way, in 1761, he printed at Strawberry-hill two volumes of his "Anecdotes of Painting in England," compiled from the papers of Mr. George Vertue, purchased at the sale of the effects of that industrious antiquary. It will be allowed, that the remains of Mr. Vertue could not have fallen into better hands. In 1763, another volume was added, and also the Catalogue of Engravers; and, in 1771, the whole was completed in a fourth volume, to which was added "The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening." In 1764, on the dismission of general (afterward marshal) Conway from the army for a vote given in parliament, he defended his friend's conduct in a pamphlet, entitled "A Counter Address to the Public, on the late dismission of a general officer," 8vo.
In the succeeding year, he published "The Castle of Otranto," a gothic story, which in the title-page was asserted to be a translation from the Italian by William Marshal, gent. In the same year, however, a second edition appeared, with the initials of the real author, Mr. Walpole. In 1766 he is supposed to have indulged his vein of humour in "An account of the Giants lately discovered, in a letter to a friend in the country."
In 1766, happened the famous quarrel between David Hume and John Jacques Rousseau, in which the former appears to have acted with the most distinguished generosity, friendship, and delicacy; and the latter, with his usual suspicion, wildness, and eccentricity. On this occasion, Mr. Walpole wrote a pretended letter from the king of Prussia to Rousseau, which found its way into the public prints, and contributed to widen the breach between the two contending philosophers. As a jeu d'esprit this composition did honour to his wit; but it has been delicately said that had he suppressed it, his reputation for a conciliatory disposition, and true benevolence of mind, would have lost nothing of its lustre.
Previously to the dissolution of parliament, in 1768, Mr. Walpole had determined to retire from public business and, accordingly, in a very handsome letter to the mayor of Lynn, declined the honour of representing his constituents any longer.
The same year, Mr. Walpole published his "Historic Doubts of the Life and Reign of King Richard III." 4 to. This performance endeavours to establish the favourable idea given of this monarch by sir George Buck, the historian; but this defence did not receive universal assent: it was controverted in various quarters, and generally considered as more ingenious than solid, it was answered by Frederick Guy Dickens, esq. in a 4to volume; and the evidence from the wardrobe-roll was controverted by Dr. Milles and Mr. Masters, in papers read before the Society of Antiquaries; and now it was discovered that Mr. Walpole, who affected the utmost humility as an author, and most politely deferred to the opinion of others, could not bear the least contradiction, and one or both of these latter pieces gave him so much disgust, that he ordered his name to he struck out of the list of members, and renounced the honour annexed to it from his connection with the body of antiquaries. Yet in this plausible work, the character of Richard is in some measure cleared from many of the enormities charged upon him by historians and poets; and, particularly, the absurdity of representing him as a mass of personal deformity, is justly exposed.
It was about this time that the transaction took place for which he has suffered the greatest censure, though, when every circumstance is duly weighed, perhaps but little blame will attach to his memory. We allude to the affair of Chatterton, whose fate was attributed by many to the neglect and supercilious behaviour of Mr. Walpole. How justly, we have already given our opinion. (See CHATTERTON, p. 183-4), and from that opinion we are not disposed to depart, although, from subsequent information, it may be allowed that Walpole had in scarcely any instance in his life displayed the liberality of patronage, and in very few, the steadiness of friendship.
In 1768, Mr. Walpole printed fifty copies of his tragedy of the "Mysterious Mother," which, as usual, were distributed among his particular friends, but with injunctions of secrecy. The horrible story on which it is founded he professed to have heard when young, and that it happened in archbishop's Tillotson's time: but he soon discovered that it had appeared in bishop Hall's works, and that it had actually been twice dramatised, however unfit such a shocking case of incest is to be presented to the public eye. Of this indeed the author was aware; "The subject," he says, "is so horrid, that I thought it would shock rather than give satisfaction to an audience. Still I found it so truly tragic in time two essential springs of terror and pity, that I could not resist the impulse of adapting it to the scene, though it should never he practicable to produce it there. I saw too that it would admit of great situations of lofty characters, and of those sudden and unforeseen strokes which have singular effect in operating a revolution in the passions, and in interesting the spectator. It was capable of furnishing not only a contrast of characters, but a contrast of vice and virtue in the same character: and by laying the scene in what age and country I pleased, pictures of ancient manners might be drawn, and many allusions to historic events introduced to bring the action nearer to the imagination of the spectator. The moral resulting from the calamities attendant on unbounded passion, even to the destruction of the criminal person's race, was obviously suited to the purpose and object of tragedy." This tragedy, however, remained for some years tolerably concealed from the public at large, until about 1783, when some person, possessed of a copy, began to give extracts from it in Woodfall's Public Advertiser, which produced the following private letter from the author, dated Berkeley-square, Nov. 8. 1783.
"Mr. H. Walpole sends his compliments to Mr. Woodfall, and does intreat him to print no more of the Mysterious Mother, which it is a little hard on the author to see retailed without his consent. Mr. Walpole is willing to make Mr. Woodfall amends for any imaginary benefit he might receive from the impression, though as copies of the play have been spread, there can be little novelty in it; and at this time the public must be curious to see more interesting articles than scenes of an old tragedy on a disgusting subject, which the author thinks so little worthy of being published, that after the first small impression, he has endeavoured to suppress it as much as lies in his power; and which he assures Mr. Woodfall he would not suffer to be represented on the stage, if any manager was injudicious enough to think of it.
"Mr. Walpole is very sorry Mr. Woodfall dropped such a hint, as well as the extravagant preference given to him over other gentlemen of great merit, which preference Mr. Walpole utterly disclaims, as well as the other high-flown compliments which he is not so ridiculous as to like.
"Mr. Walpole trusts that Mr. Woodfall will not communicate this letter to any body, and will he much obliged to him if he will let him know what satisfaction Mr. Woodfall will expect for suppressing all farther mention of him and his play."
This letter, the original of which is now before us, is very characteristic of that double traffic which Mr. Walpole too frequently endeavoured to carry on between the public and himself, and which seems to have ended only in deceiving both. With all his efforts to "suppress it as much as possible," he had at this time printed the tragedy in the first volume of his collected works intended for sale, and begun some years before.
From this period no circumstance of importance occurred in the course of Mr. Walpole's life until 1791, when, by the death of his nephew, he succeeded to the title of earl of Orford. The accession of this honour, and of the fortune annexed to it, made no alteration, in any respect, in his manner of living, nor did he take his seat in the House of Peers. He still pursued the same unvaried tenor of life, devoting himself to the conversation of his friends and to the pursuits of literature. He had been early afflicted with the gout, which, as he advanced in years, acquired strength, though it did not disqualify him either for company or conversation. The same spirit of inquiry, and the same ardour of pursuit, prevailed almost to the latest period of his life. He was capable of enjoying the society of his friends until a very short time before his death, which happened on the 2d March 1797.
By his will, which contains twenty-two sheets, besides the addition of seven codicils, by one of which he directed that his body might be opened and afterwards privately interred, he bequeathed to Robert Berry, esq. and his two daughters, Mary and Agnes Berry, all his printed works and manuscripts, to be published at their discretion, and for their own emolument. To these two ladies he gives £4000 each; and, for their lives, the house and garden late Mrs. Clive's, with the long meadow before the same, and all the furniture there; after their deaths or marriages, to go to the same uses as Strawberry-hill; and with a restriction not, to let the house for longer than a year. By the same codicil he also directs all the boxes containing his prints, books of prints, &c. to be conveyed to Strawberry-hill, to remain as heir-looms appurtenant to that estate; and makes it a particular request to the person in possession of his favourite residence, that the books, and every article of furniture there, may be preserved with care, and not disposed of, nor even removed. But all the letters written to him by such of his friends as shall be living at the time of his death, are to be returned to the writers.
Strawberry-hill he bequeathed to the hon. Mrs. Anne Damer, and a legacy of £2000 to keep it in repair, on condition that she resides there, and does not dispose of it to any person, unless it be to the countess dowager of Waldegrave, on whom and her heirs it is entailed. He died worth £91,000 3 per cents. This villa of Strawberry-hill, so often mentioned, was originally a small tenement, built in 1698, by the earl of Bradford's coachman, as a lodging-house. Colley Cibber was one of its first tenants; and after him, successively, Talbot, Bishop of Durham, the marquis of Carnarvon, Mrs. Chevevix, the toy-woman, and lord John Philip Sackville. Mr. W. purchased it 1747, began to fit it up in the Gothic style 1753, and completed it 1776. He permitted it to be shewn, by tickets, to parties of four, from May to October, between the hours of twelve and three, and only one party a day. The best concise account of this villa, and its valuable contents, that has hitherto appeared, may be found in Mr. Lysons's "Environs of London." A catalogue raisonnee of its furniture was drawn up by the noble owner, printed at Strawberry-hill in 1774, and is now among his works. He devoted a great part of his life and fortune to the embellishment of this villa, which has long been viewed as one of the greatest curiosities near the metropolis. In it he had amassed a collection of pictures, prints, and drawings, selected with great taste.
His intervals of leisure, health, and spirits, he employed in the works above mentioned, most of which have been favourites with the public, although they are of very opposite merits. He was alternately a poet, an historian, a politician, an antiquary, and a writer of dramas and romances. Of all his works his own opinion appeared to be humble; but this was mere affectation, for he was pertinacious in maintaining what he had once asserted and being possessed of keen powers of controversy, he betrayed all the irascibility of the author, while he affected to be considered only as a gentleman writing for his amusement. In his latter days he determined to vindicate his claims to literary rank, and employed himself in preparing for the press that splendid and complete edition of his works, which was published the year after his death, and was bought up with avidity, as an important addition to every library. He had begun to print this edition as far back as 1768, and nearly two volumes were completed at his private press.
Of his poetry, no very high character has been formed; yet, like his prose, it often surprises by unexpected flashes of wit, and epigrammatic turns of expression and illustration, in which he evidently delighted. His "Mysterious Mother" is, indeed, of very superior merit, and has occasioned a general regret that he should have chosen a subject so unfit for public performance. For nervous, simple, and pathetic language, each appropriated to the several persons of the drama; for striking incidents; for address in conducting the plot; and for consistency of character uniformly preserved through the whole piece; the late editor of the Biographia Dramatica thinks it equal, if not superior, to any play of the last century. The "Castle of Otranto" is his only original work in prose which displays great powers. It passed through many editions, and received new popularity when the story was dramatized in 1782 by captain Jephson. It ought not to be less a favourite now, when a passion for the marvellous seems to prevail like an epidemic with the writers and readers of romance.
Of his compilations, the most useful is, "The Anecdotes of Painting 'and Engraving." This was avowedly formed from materials left by Vertue, but it is also evident that the arrangement, the principles, the taste, and every thing not technical, is Mr. Walpole's. It is a just complaint that he did not continue to improve and enlarge what had been so well received, what will ever be a standard book, and has, probably in no inconsiderable degree, led to the advancement of the arts in this country.
One of the predominant features in Mr. Walpole's character was, a veneration for birth and rank, to which he certainly had pretensions in the long list of his ancestors, although among them we find few distinguished benefactors to their country. This passion, however, which in his political career he joined with principles that have not been thought connected with it, led him to search after those illustrious examples in whom birth and rank have been allied with genius. His industry soon produced the pleasing compilation entitled "A Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors," which, although greatly enlarged in the edition published with his works, has been thought meagre by those who did not consider that he professed to give a catalogue only. To what size and importance might it not have swelled, had he given the lives of the authors on the scale usually allowed in biographical compilations? In this work, the chief excellence is in his characters: they are admirable as portraits; and, like portraits, they have some of the faults, as well as beauties, of the most celebrated masters. We have often referred, and been greatly indebted, to Mr. Park's splendid, accurate, and highly improved edition of this work, published in 1806, 5 vols. 8vo.
The letters to general Conway and his other friends, which he left for publication with his works, have been much admired. They exhibit his taste, his disposition, his friendship, and all his peculiarities, to the greatest advantage. It cannot be doubted that he valued those compositions, as he had kept copies of them for so many years, with a view to publication; and as he was always of opinion that the English made a very poor figure in letter-writing, it is not unfair to suppose that he might wish to remove this reproach, with what success, it is not necessary here to inquire. It must be observed, however, that his wit has many marks of effort and labour, that it recurs too often, and that he is too often disposed to treat serious subjects with unbecoming levity. If he was not an infidel, he was at least a sneerer; and while in one place he almost predicts the revolution in France, and in another, execrates the atrocities with which it was accompanied, he seems unconscious that his own principles were not very remote from those which precipitated the destruction of the throne and the altar.
Mr. Walpole valued highly his talent for letter-writing, and many have regarded him as the best letter-writer of his day. If they had said the most lively, or the most witty, they would have been nearer the truth. But whatever the particular merit of his correspondence, it has since proved fatal to his personal character in a very important feature. Letter-writing seems to have been with him a species of patronage, of grace and favour conferred upon his literary contemporaries, on whom he bestowed no other favours. Whatever else he might disappoint them in, they were sure to receive a letter full of praise, and Mr. Walpole's praise was once thought of considerable importance. But since his printed correspondence has been compared with many hundred letters now extant that never were intended for the press, the evidence of his insincerity, of his extreme vanity, and duplicity towards those whom he most lavishly flattered, is too full and clear to admit of any hesitation in pronouncing that these degrading meannesses belonged to him in no common degree. One very gross instance of his treacherous correspondence may be seen in Stewart's Life of Dr. Robertson; but more, and perhaps fuller, proofs exist in his correspondence with the late Rev. William Cole of Milton, now in the British Museum.
Lord Orford's intellectual defects, says a critic of great candour and ability, were those of education, and temper and habit, and not those of nature. "His rank, and his father's indulgences, made him a coxcomb: nature made him, in my opinion, a genius of no ordinary kind. The author of "The Castle of Otranto" possessed invention, and pathos, and eloquence, which, if instigated by some slight exertion, might have blazed to a degree, of which common critics have no conception."