September 1, 2014

The sumptuous commode that belonged to Horace Walpole joins Gallery 13 at the Legion of Honor in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House. Mounted in Chinese lacquer and embellished with ormolu mounts, this commode was purchased in 1763 by Horace Walpole, the youngest son of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister and the builder of Houghton Hall. The younger Walpole was a collector of paintings, antiquities, books, furniture, and decorative arts, and, through his writings, he was both a commentator and a tastemaker in mid-Georgian England. His most famous work was the rebuilding of his villa, Strawberry Hill House, located in Twickenham (west of London), a project completed in four stages between 1749 and 1776. Strawberry Hill House is one of the earliest and most influential examples of 18th-century Gothic Revival architecture in England.

At the center of Strawberry Hill House is the Gallery, the room Horace Walpole built in the style of an Elizabethan long gallery. Vaulted in plaster and papier-mâché in the Perpendicular Gothic style, the Gallery was modeled after Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey. The room’s main purpose was to display the picture collection, but furniture such as the commode, originally installed against the Gallery’s wall of windows, also contributed to the lavish interior.

Commissioned as one of a pair from the London cabinetmaker Pierre Eloy Langlois (French, 1738–1805), the commode—with its black and gold lacquer, gilded mounts, and dark green verde antico (ancient green) marble top—would have added to the room’s stately visual effect, combined with walls hung in rich crimson fabric, painted plaster vaulting, gilded frames, and wall mirrors. The two commodes also supported other works of art, including two grand Sèvres porcelain vases (vases Choiseul) mounted in gilt bronze and a pair of Italian Renaissance maiolica vases. Four corner cupboards made en suite in the same fashionable Rococo style completed this set of furnishings.

For Horace Walpole, there was nothing incongruous about placing Rococo furniture in a Gothic Revival interior; in fact, the juxtaposition of styles enhanced the sense of history he fostered in his art collections from different periods and in building his house in a historic style. This commode is on view in Gallery 13 at the Legion of Honor, which has been recently refurbished to create a fresh view of the Museums’ British paintings and decorative arts from the 17th to the early 19th centuries.

Image credit: Strawberry Hill House commode, England, London, 1763. Pierre Eloy Langlois, cabinetmaker. Chinese lacquer, japanning, ormolu mounts, and verde antico marble top. FAMSF, gift of Mrs. William P. Roth, 1985.58a–b