The Strawberry Hill Press

Strawberry Hill, the ‘Gothick‘ pile near Twickenham, which dilettante Horace Walpole began to build in 1749, continues to fascinate lovers of architecture and design. No only is it the first building of its kind, and as such was responsible for inspiring the taste for Gothic architecture, but it was the brainchild of a man whose life and work has been the subject of so much scholarly attention. Indeed, the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale began as a private collection devoted to Walpole and today it houses the biggest holding of Walpoliana in the world.

Much of the interest in Walpole among bibliophiles focuses on the Strawberry Hill Press, which was launched by the collector and connoisseur in 1757. The works which issued from it are sought after by collectors around the world and have always commanded high prices. Your Jotter was reminded of this when in leafing through Austin Dobson’s A Bookman’s Budget ( 1917) he came across a sub-chapter entitled ‘The Officina Arbuteana’.

In it Dobson discusses the two Strawberry Hill Press books he owned. The first was An Account of Russia as it was in the Year 1710 by the British Ambassador at the time, Charles Lord Whitworth. This is what Dobson classes as mainly ‘politico-statistical’ which he declares to be largely ‘dull and dry’, but he does admit that the anecdote supplied by Walpole in his Introduction is noteworthy. It concerns a remark made by Catherine I to Whitworth on the dance floor that referred obliquely to some relationship the couple had had when the Czarina was much younger.

The other, distinctly more interesting book, was in fact the first work to issue from the Press. This was Odes by Mr Gray (1757), ‘printed at Strawberry Hill, for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall Mall.’ Walpole thought these rather ‘ obscure ‘poems written in Greek ‘ sublime ‘, while Dobson noted that as later reprinted in English as ‘ The Progress of Poetry’ and ‘ The Bard’ they contained ‘ thoughts that breathe and words that burn’ which have ‘passed into the commonplaces of the language’.

It is interesting to guess how many copies of this particular production were printed. Today, one assumes that a typical private press might print off up to  500 copies of a title in a limited edition, but according to an unpublished list of Strawberry Hill Press  works mentioned by Dobson, Walpole himself gave the number as 2,000. This seems a rather large figure for a book of poems written in Greek without footnotes, but Gray had already established himself as a leading poet by publishing his ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’ in 1751. Only two copies of Odes appear on Abebooks, one at an eye-watering £813, which may suggest that Walpole was exaggerating the size of his edition.

Incidentally, Dobson’s copy of Gray was once owned by the celebrated painter, poet and art teacher, William Bell Scott (1811 – 90), who also designed the bookplate ( illustrated) stuck into it. Its neo-classical elements perhaps reflect the artist’s personal tastes, though as an artist he found greater inspiration in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, of which he was a fellow traveller rather than a leading light. Like his close friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Scott also wrote poetry, which might explain his ownership of the Strawberry Hill Gray. His debut volume, Poems (1875) is not an easy book to find, though as it contains etchings and other illustrations by him with a strong Pre-Raphaelite flavour, it is worth looking out for. A later collection, A Poet’s Harvest Home : being one hundred short poems (1882), is less scarce, but equally interesting. It has been remarked that as poet/painter who illustrated his own poems, Scott follows on from William Blake. But in many ways he was more versatile than him. He was Head of the Government School of Art in Newcastle upon Tyne from 1843 -64 and as a muralist working at Wallington Hall, Northumberland, was one of the first painters to seriously depict aspects of the Industrial Revolution.

However, unlike Blake, who was devoted to his wife, Scott was unhappily married to someone reluctant to divorce him. Because of this he sought solace in the arms of his mistress, Alice Boyd, and the three negotiated a ménage a trois that only ended with Scott’s death.

R. M. Healey      

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