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January 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1450

The Walpole Society

Ever since the Walpole Society was founded in London in 1911 ‘with the object of promoting the study of the history of British art’, The Burlington Magazine has taken a close interest in an organisation with aims and principles so close to our own: this is the sixth Editorial we have devoted to the subject. The first, written by the art historian August F. Jaccaci, who edited the Magazine’s ‘Art in America’ section, appeared in 1913 on the occasion of the publication of the first of the annual volumes that are the society’s raison d’être. His words remain largely true today, eighty-four volumes later: ‘The Annual, it must be remembered, is issued at the cost of the members of the Society. It is not offered for sale, and brings in no profit; its production probably absorbs all the subscriptions. The Society’s admirable work cannot, therefore, be carried on unless it is well supported; we sincerely hope that it will be’.[1] As the society explains on its website, its annual volume usually contains over three hundred pages ‘and the articles can be of any length. This enables the Society to publish primary documentation of a kind that other scholarly journals are unable to handle’. Providing encouragement to readers of this Magazine to support the society would be reason enough to publicise its work once more in these pages, but there is an additional justification in the several impressive improvements it has made in its offering to its members in the past year. 

Most obviously there is the elegant redesign of its website (www., which now offers members direct access to all its past volumes as downloadable pdfs. A trawl through the index is evidence enough that the aims with which the society was founded have been more than amply fulfilled: the volumes begin with Philip Norman’s edition of Nicholas Hilliard’s Art of Limning and an article by Alexander J. Finberg on J.M.W. Turner’s Isle of Wight sketchbook and continue to the volume for 2022, Martin Myrone’s Biographical Dictionary of Royal Academy Students, 1769–1830 (to be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of this Magazine). The 2023 volume will be an edition of the art and architectural correspondence of Frederick Hervey (1730–1803), Bishop of Derry and 4th Earl of Bristol, edited by Peter Fox, and for 2024 we are promised a volume containing an inventory of the Royal Collection of pictures at Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace in the 1660s, transcribed and annotated by Lucy Whitaker, together with an edition by Claire Jones of the undelivered lectures by Thomas Woolner, in his capacity as the Royal Academy’s Professor of Sculpture. Among the recent innovations is the decision to offer new volumes for public sale: Myrone’s biographical dictionary is available through Thomas Heneage Art Books, London. 

The society takes its name from Horace Walpole, in a tribute to his Anecdotes of Painting in England, published in 1762–80 and often regarded as the foundational text for the study of the history of British art. His book was based in part on the forty-odd volumes of notes on British art and architecture compiled by the printmaker and antiquary George Vertue (1684–1756), and one of the society’s principal aims at its outset was a complete edition of his notebooks, a formidably difficult task carried out over several volumes, the last of which appeared in 1955. That achievement was celebrated by Benedict Nicolson in an Editorial in this Magazine in 1956, which concluded with a call for new members. 

In 1911, he wrote, ‘the number of subscribers was the same as it is now, a little short of 300. Of this number, apart from institutions and libraries and foreign subscribers, there are at present only about 100 individual supporters of the Society bringing in about £100 a year. This sum is a dismal reflection on the lack of support accorded by Englishmen to the Society which has done so much to encourage our knowledge of English art’. 

It is gratifying that this picture may be changing. The membership (which now includes more than a few Englishwomen, as well as Scots, Irish and Welsh) is rapidly growing. An increase of around twenty-five per cent in the past year alone is a result partly of changes to the website that have made joining completely frictionless and partly of the inauguration of a new tier of membership for people who – perhaps despairing of a lack of space on their bookshelves for the often stout volumes – prefer a digital subscription, for which they receive the book as a pdf. At the same time, membership rates were increased for the first time since 2008, but, given the quality of the annual volumes, in terms of production as well as content, the cost remains very reasonable, at £60 for the print subscription (£75 for members outside the United Kingdom) and £45 for digital; student memberships begin at only £20. 

One imperative for attracting new members is publicity and it is therefore especially good news for the future profile of the society that it has taken over responsibility for the Berger Prize. Awarded annually to an outstanding book, exhibition or exhibition catalogue on British art history appearing during the preceding calendar year, the prize (currently £5,000) was established in 2001 in honour of the late William M.B. Berger (1925–99), whose collection of some sixty British paintings was given to the Denver Art Museum. Until last year the prize was administered with great flair by Robin Simon, editor of The British Art Journal, which sadly ceased publication at the end of 2023. The most recent recipient of the prize is Timothy Clayton, for James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, published last year by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.[2] 

The new association with the prize, which has an impressive range in terms of material and chronology – the 2023 longlist of twenty-five titles included books on garden design, furniture history and Edwardian Baroque architecture, and a quarter of them were on twentieth-century subjects – should help encourage the society to move beyond what is often regarded as its heartland: British painting 1700–1850. As it states on its website, ‘we welcome contributions on subjects from any period in history from the Norman Conquest to the 1960s’. Determination to broaden its range has received practical help from another initiative launched last year: a fund to help authors meet the costs of illustrations in the annual volume. Kick-started by Lowell Libson, with additional donations promised over the next three years from Paul Gosling and the Weiss Gallery, the fund will be of particular importance to young scholars, thus helping to develop yet further the central role in the empirical study of the art of Britain and Ireland that the society has sustained so admirably for so long.

[1] A.F. [Jaccaci]: ‘The first annual volume of the Walpole Society, 1911–12’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 22 (1912–13), p.302. 

[2] Reviewed by Frederic Ogée in this Magazine, 165 (2023), pp.924–25.