Matthew M. Reeve

Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole is about the art and particularly the architectural patronage of a circle of elite men who surrounded Horace Walpole (1717-97). In the history of art, they are generally framed as the originators of the Gothic Revival—a neo-medieval mode of architecture and interior design that challenged the dominance of Palladianism in the middle years of the eighteenth century. Walpole’s remarkable villa at Strawberry Hill was a fertile space where he and his friends created various designs that would be employed at a range of other houses such as John Chute’s The Vyne in Hampshire, Dicky Bateman’s villa at Old Windsor, and so on. My book shows that the aesthetic preferences of this coterie cannot be understood independently from their own sexual preferences. Walpole and his circle were among the first members of the “third sex” of homoerotically-inclined men in eighteenth century England. I argue that their preference for alternate aesthetic modes that were called the “modern styles” of the period—namely the Gothic—was an expression of their own shared sexual subjectivity. Here, as elsewhere in the history of sexuality, sexual and aesthetic change is linked.

Matthew Reeve’s Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole has been awarded the Historians of British Art Book Award for Exemplary Scholarship on the Period between 1600 – 1800.

NOTCHES: Why will people want to read your book?

Matthew M. Reeve: People will want to read it because it offers a revisionist view of an important episode in English culture. The book restores the sexual and social bonds that have been erased or overlooked by previous scholars. These were, I assert, the social structure that allowed the Gothic to be revived and popularized in the first place. Because Walpole was a polymath, the book will be of interest to people in a range of fields, from art and architectural history, to literature, biography, and so on. One of my colleagues very kindly described it thus: “the previous accounts of this material that focussed on the architectural drawings and design sources were like looking at these buildings in black and white, while your work is like looking at them in colour.” I will be delighted if others feel the same.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic?

Reeve: I was working at Goldsmiths in London and I was teaching within what remains my main area of expertise: medieval art and architecture. But I found my students unprepared for the art of the Middle Ages or for the sophistication of medieval thought. They looked at medieval art through the lens of its post-medieval simulations: the Lord of the Rings films, Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, vampires and the horror genre, and of course the wonderful Gothic Nightmares show at the Tate (which focussed on the eighteenth century). Did these simulations reflect “the real Middle Ages” or not? What were “the real Middle ages” anyway?

The Middle Ages is one of the dominant myths of British modernity, and perhaps the dominant myth, and it was one that a teacher had to address directly rather than simply ignore. I began to see that I needed to work backward and explore this with my students through art, literature, and cinema, thus excavating layers of time and culture to get down to the real middle ages and how they have been constructed for us in modernity.

Unavoidably, we came to Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. I knew him as an art historian (he wrote the first significant history of English painting) and a medievalist who commented on and collected works of medieval art. My students and I read his outrageous The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story and we took many journeys out to view the house. In what I can only describe as a moment of historical intuition that I experienced when I walked through Strawberry Hill, I felt that I understood Walpole right away. The clever, subversive, and occasionally parodic humor I detected in his architecture would be mirrored and amplified in his letters and literature as I encountered them. In many respects, Walpole had been poorly treated by commentators: his sexuality was either completely overlooked or obfuscated behind facile cliches such as “eccentric” and “fastidious”, or he was written as a “queen” with the language of queer culture the 1980s and 90s. I began to work on him and he very quickly took over my life for almost a decade.

NOTCHES: This book engages with histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Reeve: The book engages with a series of themes, all of which are in one way or another key to modern constructions of sexuality. Anachronism is one. In England, the Gothic was understood to have ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries around 1540. For Walpole, the Gothic was reformed with the Dissolution and the conversion to Protestantism: for medievalists working in literature as much as in architecture, the Gothic became a locus in which to relocate erotic and aesthetic fantasy that was impossible in a modern present. Reviving it meant reviving not only a modish architectural style but also its many significations: monasticism and of course Catholicism. The “Gothic Gentlemen” (as they were called) revelled in the comic guise of medieval monasticism with its inherent monosexuality: they called their homes “monasteries” and “nunneries” and codified their unions as “brother monks”.

Religion in a broader sense is another. Catholicism was understood as an illicit orientation in the eighteenth century and it was frequently linked to non-normative sexuality. The Grand Tour, which put Walpole and his friends face-to-face with the Continental Catholic art and culture was understood to have transformed English males who “imported” homosexuality into England along with cognate tastes in Italian opera, theatre, Catholicism and so forth. The Gothic was a vital idiom that combined many of these ideas and offered a space to explore alternate sexuality of many kinds.

Family, or “queer family”, is a final theme. Walpole spoke of his close friends in familial terms (and represented them as such in the imagery of his home), and he even described their buildings as “children” of Strawberry Hill. I follow Whitney Davis in arguing that the buildings built by these men—many replicating aspects of Strawberry Hill—the portraits of each other that they hung, and the art and objects that they exchanged, structured “queer family romances”. Strawberry Hill invigorated something fundamental about a queer man and his home, a symbiosis of sorts between the human body and the body of architecture. I am sure one can see many “queer family romances” in the built environment when you look for them.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book?

Reeve: It is a curious fact of the historiographical legacy of Walpole that it is split—physically—between England and New England (at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale in particular). Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (1895-1979), who remains the greatest scholar of Walpole and his oeuvre, was the uncle of Jackie Kennedy and a man of letters. He collected a huge amount of Walpole’s papers, art collection and so on and housed it in his own home in Farmington, Connecticut. I was fortunate to hold fellowships at the British Art Centre at Yale and the Lewis Walpole Library where the lion’s share of the book was written. The Lewis Walpole Library is a wonderful place, and I owe a great debt to their brilliant curators and librarians (who helped me write the book but also taught me how to play croquet at lunch time).

Because of the dispersal of the art and objects of Walpole and his circle was broad, I also tracked down things in Switzerland, the United States, England, Canada, Scotland and other places. I was delighted to find a wealth of new information that was hiding in plain sight regarding how the new architectural style of Walpole’s circle was read as a “queer” (or “fribblish”) style. One eureka moment came at Yale when I realized that “fribble” was a term to describe a new category of English gentlemen and the somewhat fussy tastes that he promoted. I also followed a lucky hunch and uncovered a stash of papers in a private collection in Switzerland about Donnington Grove in Berkshire, which made for a wonderful trip.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Reeve: Walpole’s circle included many extraordinary women whom I discuss, but far more fleetingly than I would have liked. My focus on art and architectural patronage was necessarily limited to a tight milieu of male house builders who built or renovated homes along the Thames. A lacuna in the book is the stories of women in Walpole’s life, including his niece and beneficiary, Anne Damer, who apparently liked “her own sex in a criminal way”. She was not only the child of Walpole’s much loved cousin Henry Seymour Conway but she also had a long and loving relationship with Merry Berry, Walpole’s close friend, who lived at “Little Strawberry Hill”. Even if male and female homosexuality was not understood on the same continuum that it is today, her sexual alterity, it appears, was something that Walpole sensed he shared with her. The queer genealogy of Strawberry Hill after Walpole’s life remains to be fully explored, although I am happy that some friends in the UK are working on this now.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Reeve: All scholarship is surely autobiography of a sort. I came from a very conservative family that disdained sexuality of any sort and my sibling and I revolted in every possible way we could! I became interested in discourses on sexuality when I tried to read my mother’s The Female Eunuch when I was about thirteen. Needless to state, many of its broader claims eluded me. But I continued to read everything I could while at the University of Toronto when Camille Paglia was making waves. Like most people of my generation, I read a ton of Foucault and also absorbed his ideas second hand in scholarship. While my doctoral work took me in different directions, I continued to build up a library of books in the history of sexuality, many of which were employed when I “met” Horace Walpole. It was a marriage made in heaven. I also explored many of the same issues in my other work, for example in an autobiographical essay on the late Michael Camille, a leading medievalist of his generation, entitled “Michael Camille’s Queer Middle Ages” (a PDF is on my faculty page).

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Reeve: Walpole is “owned” equally by historians, literary critics, art historians, and increasingly, historians of sexuality. I hope that the book will be of interest in university classes in all of these areas. Literary studies—led by the great George Haggerty—has been far in advance of art history in this respect. The history of British architecture has tended to be somewhat conservative, and I would hope that the integrated approach in my book helps to broaden discussions of how and why art and architecture came to be in the first place and the role that sexual and social coteries played in shaping the history of art.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Reeve: I am writing on medieval sculpture at the moment, but my next work on the eighteenth century will be on the Casa Manetti—Sir Horace Mann’s quattrocento house in Tuscany. Mann was Horace Walpole’s cousin and he welcomed him and his friends into Italy and created various opportunities for them. In George Rousseau’s apt characterization, the Casa Manetti was “the nerve centre of the homoerotic Englishman’s Italy”. The Grand Tour was a pedagogical exercise that taught men as much about art as about sex. From my perspective, we cannot divide sexual and aesthetic aisthesis—they are mutually-reinforcing parts of the self and are profitably studied together. As I noted above, Georgian critics blamed the Grand Tour for transforming young men and bringing them home with new modes and tastes. Slanted though this commentary is, there is some truth to it. Men learned taste in art as well as accrued a wealth of sexual experience and created a coterie of English friends abroad. They also learned a language of description—a way of interfacing with art both in person and in art writing for those who put pen to paper—that would be influential in England. Walpole would keep his own queer circle that he created in Italy for the rest of their lives and he would in turn send his young friends to the Casa Manetti for the same experiences. My thinking here is indebted to David Halperin’s How to Be Gay, which, while focussing on the twentieth century, nonetheless usefully informs the pedagogical nature of queerness itself in the eighteenth century as a process taught by senior to younger men. The Casa Manetti stood at the centre of all of this.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Reeve: Different though they clearly are from modern ones, the sexual cultures of Walpole’s world invigorated some of the dominant ideas of homosexuality and homoeroticism which would await codification in nineteenth- and twentieth-century sexology and psychoanalysis. We thus straddle a difficult line of neither imposing contemporary ideas and terminologies on Walpole nor ignoring broader genealogies that informed our modern constructions of homosexuality. Walpole described the elaborate ornamentation of Strawberry Hill as “Gothicism” and the Gothic generally as a “licentious style”, a style that transgresses the forms of medieval gothic. In his aesthetics as much as his own personal affect (not to mention his literature), Walpole’s oeuvre prefaces much of the subversive sensibility that would be called “camp” in the twentieth century. Another example lies in these men’s attraction to fussy ornamented surfaces and “female” commodities such as porcelain and jewellery, which stood in contrast to the mode of “disinterested speculation” associated with the appreciation of classical and neo-classical art. From a Georgian lens, this suggested an emotive, even feminine mode of response, one that apparently stemmed from an infantile imagination (this led one commentator to look at Walpole’s circle’s raptures over art as those of “screaming queens”). While I don’t subscribe to that, it is interesting that this construction of sexuality linked to aesthetics would inform Freud’s understanding of homosexuality over a century later. Finally, there is the fact that, from Walpole to Simeon Solomon, to MR James and Derek Jarman, the Gothic had an established appeal to queer writers and thinkers as an alternate mode to prevailing trends. This nexus of medievalism and queerness now needs sustained exploration.

Matthew M Reeve is Associate Professor of Art History and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Beginning at the University of Toronto and continuing to Cambridge for his PhD, his career has been divided between Europe and North America. He has written extensively on medieval art and architecture and the post-medieval imaginings of the middle ages in art, architecture and literature. 

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