Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was a man of remarkably diverse talents: novelist, art historian, designer and politician. He was also a prolific letter writer, and many of his famous phrases from his correspondence live on in the mind, and still have relevance for our world today. Ahead of our public lecture series celebrating his legacy, here are five of the most memorable.
The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.
This could apply to Wapole himself, who worked across many different fields in the arts, culture and society. It’s incredibly difficult to think of a modern figure who does so many things quite so well. Can you think of anyone today who is a designer and architect, and who combines being a popular novelist with being a prominent political figure, all the while compiling a vast volume of correspondence?
My buildings are paper, like my writings, and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.
This remark in a letter of 1761 shows Walpole’s unusual awareness of the links between building and writing and his fascination with the ephemerality of his work. Many modern public buildings, like the Scottish Parliament and the UK Supreme Court, etch quotations from writers and thinkers into their built fabric. Prebends Bridge in Durham has a plaque quoting a poem by Walter Scott. It’s an interesting thought that two of Walpole’s greatest passions, for words and for buildings, might be closer together than we think.
If a passion for freedom is not in vogue, patriots may sound the alarm till they are weary.
This was published in Memoires of the Last Ten Years of the Reign of George the Second (1822). George II was a controversial monarch, famed for his womanising and boorishness. He ruled at a time of war abroad and internal rebellion. In a moment when Donald Trump sits in the White House, while protesters have applied his patriotic ‘America First’ slogan to alarming extremes in Charlottesville, Walpole reminds us that people don’t listen until they want to and – much more edgily – that ideas have to be in vogue for us to stand up for them.
History is a romance that is believed; romance, a history that is not believed.
By ‘romance’ Walpole means what we’d call ‘fiction’; and nobody has put better the tensions between historical ‘fact’ and story-telling. This idea recurs in many of Walpole’s works. He was especially fascinated by facts and fictions about Richard III, and wrote the first major rethinking of Richard III’s reputation, ‘Historic Doubts’.
The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.
This was one of Walpole’s favourite quotes, repeated a number of times across his writings. Seeing the comic pattern in events, Walpole suggests, is an act of intellect; whereas tragic patterns are what appeal to our feelings. Walpole’s refined aphorism looks simple but isn’t.
Come and learn more about the life and ongoing influence of Horace Walpole at our series beginning on 10th October. The first lecture in the series, by Professor Stephen Regan, will explore the astonishing variety of Walpole’s letters.