S.P.B.Mais meets Sir Hugh Walpole

Hugh Walpole was once one of the most popular and richest novelists in Britain. Today he is hardly read, though he still has his fans; in 2020 The Hugh Walpole Society was founded in an attempt to resurrect his reputation. Back in the early thirties, when Walpole’s star was at its highest, the journalist and broadcaster S. P. B. Mais ( see previous Jots), while rambling in the Lake District, popped in to talk to him at Brackenburn, his ‘ small stone house’ on the edge of Derwentwater, not far from Keswick. This is the impression of Walpole that Mais published in his Weekends in England(1933).

S P B Mais (1885 – 1975) with wife Doris

‘A most charming host I have seldom met. He took me all over his house, muttering , “ I hope I’m not boring you, “ as he turned out treasure after treasure for my inspection. There was a thirteenth century missal, exquisitely painted. “I got that from an old man in Carlisle, “ he said. There were the holograph manuscripts  of “ The Fortunes of Nigel “, with scarcely a correction, the proof sheets of the same novel with many corrections, not only by Scott, but also by Ballantyne, there were letters from Charlotte Bronte showing how deeply she loved her husband, letters from Thackeray showing how he disliked Dickens, especially in his relation to America, there were very rare early editions of Kipling and Bennett, and first editions  of every Victorian and Georgian novelist, some glorious pictures of C. J. Holmes, Sickert, Bone, Grant and most of the moderns.

Altogether a house of taste.

Then we were taken over the garden and shown the bee-hives and the superb view over the woods of Manesty to the lake.

But the thing that remains most in my mind beyond the lovely pictures and beautifully bound and rare books is the quality of Mr Walpole’s voice.

It was full of genuine friendliness and charm…’

The bachelor Walpole, who had a flat in Piccadilly as well as his Lake District bolthole, lived with a ‘ handsome policeman ‘ from 1929 until his death twelve years later aged just 57. According to his biographer, Rupert Hart Davies, who knew him well, Walpole bought pictures, presumably mainly in London,  on a sort of whim and many were stacked up against the wall until he could find a place for them. In Hollywood in the 1930s he was invited to provide a screenplay for Little Lord Fauntleroy, but according to one source ‘he spent most of his fees on paintings, forgetting to keep enough money to pay US tax on his earnings.’ Kenneth Clark called him ‘ one of the three or four real patrons of art in this country, and of that small body he was perhaps the most generous and the most discriminating’.   At his death in 1941 he left 14 works to the Tate Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum ( he was a graduate of Cambridge University) , including paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Augustus John, Tissot and Renoir. Other artists represented in the Walpole collection were: Epstein, Picasso, Gauguin, Sickert and Utrillo. He also owned works by Constable, Turner and Rodin. Walpole’s sister and brother donated MSS, correspondence, paintings and sculpture from Brackenburn.

The British Museum received many manuscripts. His own correspondence with various literary friends and acquaintances, found a permanent home in the Bodleian, where incidentally the archive of your Jotter’s late uncle, Denis Healey, were deposited a few years ago. Walpole—a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott—amassed the largest collection in Britain of this author’s MSS and early editions, including those items mentioned by Mais. Walpole also bequeathed MSS to the archives of his old school, the King’s School, Canterbury, including some Bronte material. These can be inspected by members of the public on application to the school’s Archivist and your Jotter can attest that they are certainly worth seeing.


One thought on “S.P.B.Mais meets Sir Hugh Walpole

  1. Simon Dunant

    Great to see another great article highlighting the life and works of Hugh Walpole. I’ve also published a comprehensive website about Walpole’s life and works over at https://hughwalpole.com where there are also many of his audiobooks available to listen to for free. Hope it’s a useful resource for your readers if they’re interested in delving further into Walpole’s life!

    Keep up the great work!



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