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24 September 1717 - 2 March 1797

Horace Walpole (1717–1797) was an English author, antiquarian, and man of letters. Originally named Horatio Walpole, he was born on the 24th of September 1717 to the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) and his wife Catherine (d. 1737). Walpole was a prolific and wide-ranging writer of his age, penning a vast number of historically significant correspondence, as well as three novels. The most famous of his literary works, The Castle of Otranto (1764), was one of the earliest examples of a horror story and was the first Gothic Horror novel to be published in the English language. It went on to inspire many of the classic horror stories still in print to this day.

Background and Early Life

Much like many young British aristocrats, Walpole received an education from Bexley. He went on to study at Eton College and then King’s College Cambridge, although he left Cambridge without attaining a degree.

Throughout his time at college, he became friends with other notable contemporaries of the British upper classes, such as Thomas Gray (1716–1771), an English poet and classics scholar. Together, the pair embarked on a grand tour of Europe in 1739, visiting places throughout France and Spain over two years. They suffered a falling out on their return journey and parted ways for the last part of the trip. When Walpole returned to England in 1741, he was elected Whig member of parliament under his father’s government. He governed the rotten borough of Callington, Cornwall, holding his seat for thirteen years.

When his father lost power the following year, Walpole returned to the family home, Houghton Hall in Norfolk and spent three years there with his father before his death in 1745. He continued his work in politics, though less prominently throughout the later years of his life, until his retirement from parliament in 1768.

Strawberry Hill House

From 1749 onwards, Walpole was creating a dramatic piece of Neo-Gothic architecture, Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham. In an elevated position overlooking the River Thames, the intricately decorated façade, along with its battlements and turrets, was a true architectural marvel during the period. Its Gothic character revived the once-abandoned style of architecture decades before his Victorian ancestors popularised it. It was long connected to the Blue Stockings Society, an informal women’s educational and social movement in England during the mid-eighteenth century. The house played host to its members, including prominent English author and poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743–1825).

Writing and Literary Achievements

Along with the house, Walpole established his own printing press, the Strawberry Hill Press, in 1757. It published his own writings, as well as those of his contemporaries Thomas Gray and Robert Dodsley (1703–1764), as well as reprints of other works.

Throughout his life, Walpole compiled a collection of correspondence in the thousands. Mostly written to Horace Mann (1706–1786) and his other friends, volumes of these letters have been widely republished since his death and are highly regarded by historians as a valuable insight into the period. They provide many modern readers with brilliant quotes like ‘the world is a comedy for those that think, a tragedy for those that feel’, first appearing in a letter to Mann in 1769. In another, he berates Mary Wollstonecraft, exclaiming: ‘Thou reverse of that Hyaena in petticoats, Mrs. Wollstonecraft, who to this day discharges her ink and gall on Maria Antoinette.’ (Letter to Hannah More, January 26th, 1795). In one letter to Mann in 1754, Walpole coined the word ‘serendipity’ while alluding to a fairy tale he had read, ‘Three Princes of Serendip’.

As well as his letters, Walpole was a wide-ranging author, publishing both fiction and non-fiction works. His non-fiction includes the book Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762), which is now highly regarded as an art historical text, Memoirs on the Reigns of George II and III (add date), and Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III (1793). One of the key pieces of work to be published by Strawberry Hill Press was A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, first printed in 1784, which gives an in-depth description of the house itself and a detailed inventory of his belongings. During the Age of Enlightenment (1685–1815), it was fashionable for the upper classes to acquire artefacts from around the world, of which Walpole had an admirable collection. Not only did it earn him the title of antiquarian, but it is also said that his personal collection inspired the setting for his most prominent literary work, The Castle of Otranto.  The Gothic Horror novel was published in 1764, although not by his own press. With this, he wrote two more fictional works, The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy (1768) and Hieroglyphic Tales (1785).


Originally published anonymously in 1764, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is now regarded as the first Gothic novel. Based on a nightmare he had while staying at Strawberry Hill House, the tale is evocative of his Gothic surroundings. Set in a haunted castle, the story follows Manfred (the Prince of Otranto) as he tries to escape an ominous ancient prophecy. With its supernatural elements, hidden identities, and virginal damsels in distress, Walpole's writing style established the foundation of Gothic Horror literature as we know it today. It went on to inspire countless Gothic novels and interpretations, including the short story ‘Sir Bertrand’ by his acquaintance Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).

Death and Legacy

Horace Walpole died on the 2nd of March, 1797, aged 79. He left a long-standing legacy through his literary and architectural achievements. His prolific letters continue to provide a rich insight into society during the Age of Enlightenment, while his seminal novel successfully established the Gothic genre. His Neo-Gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill House, endures to this day, its towering turrets overlooking the River Thames in a true celebration of the Gothic movement.