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Lewis Walpole Library brings 'treasure' to BAC

By Bidisha Banerjee

High Capitalism's self-indulgent and extravagant need to fetishize—from its early days to the present—is currently on prominent display at the Yale Center for British Art's (BAC) newest exhibition, A Treasure House in Farmington: The Lewis Walpole Library. The exhibit showcases the highlights of collector William Sheldon Lewis', Class of 1918, hoard of fellow collector Horace Walpole's goodies.

Joan Sussler, one of the curators of the exhibition, characterizes Lewis as an independently wealthy man who had the self-discipline, energy, and money to purchase most of the relics (such as books, manuscripts, art, and furnishings) from the original collection of Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Walpole is famous today for somewhat dubious reasons: he was the youngest son of Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of England, and he wrote the first-ever Gothic novel, The Castle of Otronto. Lewis' collection, however, casts him in a different light. It stridently underscores Walpole's historical importance as a collector of artifacts that are deeply interesting to both scholars and to the everyday viewer.

COURTESY BRITISH ART CENTER
Yeah, you wish this were your room
Lewis and his wife, Annie Burr Auchincloss, were obsessed with Walpole their entire lives. They took yearly trips to England in pursuit of his letters, books, and art, and eventually established the Lewis Walpole Library at their estate in Farmington, Conn.; Lewis bequeathed the library to Yale upon his death. It is open by appointment to scholars and students and is one of Yale's top resources for British Studies. In commemoration of the library's 20th anniversary at Yale, the exhibition at the BAC allows choice treasures to be viewed by the public for the first time.

The show promises an incisive portrait of Horace Walpole the man, as well as of his age. The display of his famous letters—which chronicle major public events, social and artistic life, entertainment, and gossip—along with his renowned furnishings and collection of art and art objects delivers an immensely detailed and many-angled perspective. Everything you always wanted to know about the House of Commons, masquerade balls, shops, Vauxhall (a "pleasure-garden"), the theater, the opera, the social customs, and the artists and writers of the 18th century, is all here at this exhibition. If you're looking for celebrated Gothic chairs designed for the Great Parlour of Strawberry Hill (Walpole's fancy residence), a replica of a Louis XV ormulu clock (ornate, gold, and still chiming), portraits of Alexander Pope and William Hogarth's sketches, or the first edition of Walpole's novel (replete with sketches of scary monsters), the Lewis Walpole Library and its team of helpful curators will not disappoint.

The BAC will also offer a series of lectures in conjunction with the exhibit. These range from "Britain and Islam, 1650-1750: Different Perspectives on Difference" to "Some Thoughts on Hogarth's Jew: Issues in Current Hogarth Scholarship" to "What Comes Down Goes Back Up: Restoring a Late 17th-century Picture Attributed to Grinling Gibbons." In addition, there will be a concert of 18th-century music.

But if these prospects do not interest you, the exhibition is still worth investigating—if only for the mute evidence it bears to the obsession for collecting. What curious fanaticism must have haunted Walpole in his quest for curios? What brand of acquisitiveness could have driven Lewis to try to encompass and re-create the entire world of Horace Walpole in bucolic Farmington? How decadent has the leisure time afforded by capitalism made its privileged class? Will the religion of everyday life ever end? These are questions to consider when you're gawking at the ornate cabinet inlaid with semi-precious stones that Hogarth commissioned in order to house the drawings of his friend, Lady Diana Beauclerk, or when you learn that the Lewis Walpole Library has over 37,000 prints of 18th-century caricatures—the largest collection outside the British Museum.

A Treasure House in Farm-ington also testifies to the unbelievable opulence and leisure that British noblemen enjoyed in the 18th century. Because it contains no mention of the other histories that ran parallel to this world of fantastical gothic fantasies and ormulu clocks, it draws all the more attention to the aspects of the age that lie undocumented in Walpole's collection. Since viewers are offered no perspective on Britain's increasing imperialism during this period or on its rapid industrial modernization, they will think about what this collection does not document just as much as they will be intrigued by the objects that it does.

It's worth a trip to the BAC just to see Walpole's tiny gold snuff-box, embellished with a portrait of Tonton, a black spaniel. This exquisite miniature manages to encapsulate everything the rest of the exhibit conveys about fetishism, opulence, and the Golden Age of Britain.

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