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Horace Walpole | Biography

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Early Life

English author Horace Walpole, who was born on September 24, 1717, in London, gained fame in Europe for creating a new genre of writing: Gothic literature. After his novel The Castle of Otranto was published, literature with medieval, spiritual, and villainous elements gained popularity. Walpole was the son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, and he enjoyed a life of privilege and esteem. He was also the youngest of six children, two of whom died at a young age. Throughout his life he was pale and sickly, and he largely devoted himself to arts and architecture.

Horace Walpole was very close to his mother, who died when he was only 20. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was often away on political ventures or with his mistress. After his mother's death, Walpole was isolated and depressed. He dropped out of King's College in Cambridge and went on a tour of Europe. He was accompanied by his friend, the English poet Thomas Gray. They traveled to places such as Italy to study the arts and architecture. At some point during the trip, Gray and Walpole had a fight, and Gray left his friend on the Continent. Walpole eventually returned home and, in the family tradition, began his political career. He became a member of Parliament in 1741 and had moderate success as a politician. Rather than devoting himself wholeheartedly to politics, as his father had done, he instead gained esteem as a writer of personal letters and novels.

Strawberry Hill

After the death of his father in 1745, Walpole sought to find ways to spend the money he earned from his political appointments. Walpole oversaw the creation of his own house, known as Strawberry Hill, which was built in Gothic style and greatly influenced by architecture used in medieval Catholic churches. He continued to build on additions to the home, such as turrets, arched windows, stained glass, and grand interiors, until Strawberry Hill looked more like a castle than a house. In many ways Strawberry Hill was Walpole's masterwork, which began an architectural trend in England. Walpole kept renovating Strawberry Hill throughout his lifetime from the year it was first purchased in 1747 until 1790. He added new wings, gardens, and fanciful decorations such a bench shaped like a seashell. While he was still alive, Strawberry Hill became a tourist destination. Walpole also amassed a large library, containing many rare books. Additionally, Walpole ran a printing press from his home, publishing books and writing about art.

Walpole's home greatly influenced his artistic direction. He had a nightmare one night, and, based on imagery from his dream, he wrote The Castle of Otranto. Walpole stated "that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armor. In the evening I sat down and began to write." The building took on a new significance for Walpole after being endowed with symbolism in the fictional work. When Walpole first published the book, he pretended that it was a new translation of an old book found in Italy. When the book gained popularity, he admitted he was the sole author.

Later Life

Throughout his life Walpole continued to be involved in arts and letters, and he wrote popular art history scholarship on painting. Walpole never married, and most of his family died before he passed away on March 2, 1797, after suffering from gout (a form of arthritis). Walpole had many close friends who died in the 1770s and 1780s, causing him a great deal of sadness. Strawberry Hill, despite its popularity among tourists, began to decay. Walpole's entire life was changed by the frequent deaths of those he cherished, and his emotional landscape remained dark as is reflected in the somber mood of his writing and design. Letter writing was consistently Walpole's most productive artistic output. After his death his correspondence, which included some 4,000 letters, was published in a huge 48-volume set (1937–83). The letters concern art, design, and theory.

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