Enfilade

Strawberry Hill Acquires Walpole’s Iconic Blue and White Tub

Posted in museums, on site by Editor on October 22, 2022

Yes, that tub! Lots of places to go for more information, but one might start with Luisa Calè, “Gray’s ‘Ode’ and Walpole’s China Tub: The Order of the Book and The Paper Lives of an Object,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 45.1 (Fall 2011): 105–25. From the press release, via Art Daily:

One of the most iconic and macabre objects owned by Horace Walpole (1717–1797) has been reacquired by Strawberry Hill House, thanks to the UK’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme. The beautiful, large blue and white vase achieved a certain notoriety after Walpole’s favourite cat, Selima, drowned in it while trying to catch goldfish, which the author kept in it. The incident was later immortalised in a mock-heroic ode by Walpole’s friend, the poet Thomas Gray, “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” (1747).

The cat’s death actually occurred at Walpole’s London house, in Arlington Street. The bowl, along with many other works of art, was moved to Strawberry Hill sometime in the 1760s. In 1773, Walpole commissioned a Gothic-style pedestal for the tub and a label to be affixed to it with the first stanza of the poem. After 1778 the tub was moved to the Little Cloister, outside of the house, with the 1784 Description describing the new location: “On a pedestal, stands the large blue and white china tub in which Mr. Walpole’s cat was drowned; on a label of the pedestal is written the first stanza of Mr. Gray’s beautiful ode on that occasion, ‘Twas on this lofty vase’s side, Where China’s gayest art has dy’d. The azure flow’rs that blow, Demurest of the tabby kind, The pensive Selima reclin’d, Gaz’d on the lake below’.”

Research prompted by last year’s In Focus exhibition devoted to the tub, together with the expertise required to secure its return to Strawberry Hill House, demonstrated that it is an outstanding work of art in its own right—albeit with an extraordinary backstory. The quality of every aspect of the jardiniere is superior; from the shaping of the pot, to the glazing and firing, all demonstrate a remarkable level of artistry.

Announcing the permanent return of the vase, Derek Purnell, Director, Strawberry Hill House & Garden, said: “Once again, we are grateful to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which has allowed us to reacquire one of the most iconic objects in the collection. An object whose true value recently emerged, thanks to the attention prompted by our 2021 In Focus exhibition featuring the goldfish bowl. Traditionally described as a typical 18th-century Chinese product, made for a foreign clientele, Walpole’s porcelain vase is in reality an older and more valuable object. The jardinière, of exceptional quality, dates from the 17th century and is decorated with a continuous design of the ‘Three Friends of Winter’—pine, prunus, and bamboo—within a fenced garden of rocks and plants.”

Edward Harley OBE, Chairman of the AIL Panel said: “This Chinese jardinière is remarkable for its association with Horace Walpole and the drowning of his favourite cat. It was placed on prominent display in the cloisters at Strawberry Hill during Walpole’s lifetime, and it is fitting that, thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, it has been returned to its former home.”

Arts Minister Stuart Andrew said: “The Acceptance in Lieu scheme exists so important works of art and heritage objects can be owned by the nation and displayed for everyone to enjoy. It is fantastic that this vase has been returned to Horace Warpole’s former estate where it can go on permanent display in its rightful home.”

The porcelain vase will go on permanent display in the Hall at Strawberry Hill House, from Wednesday, 26 October 2022.

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