A Spring Bloom at Strawberry Hill House


Two rare, privately-owned paintings, created as a pair in the eighteenth-century by the Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) are on display at Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, until 8 September. They are exquisite. The two oil-on-wood panels are  still-life pendants, and are as captivating as their titles are long; Fruits, including Grapes, Peaches, and a Pineapple, with Flowers and a Poppy in a Sculpted Vase, a Landscape Behind and A Vase of Flowers, including Roses, Tulips and a Crown Imperial, with a Bird’s Nest on a Marble Ledge, a Statue of Flora, and Columns Behind, both painted between 1731-32.

Van Huysum was celebrated in his lifetime with his work commanding enormous fees. Clients gladly paid. The paintings on display at Strawberry Hill are two examples of why his work was so highly prized. An early owner of this pair of multi-coloured, exuberant  fruit and flower extravagances  was the 18th century Swiss painter, art dealer and art-theorist Jean-Étienne Liotard. A massive fan of van Huysum’s work, in Liotard’s book Treatise on the Principles and Rules of Painting, published1781, he described the paintings as “the most beautiful, the most perfectly finished, and the most perfect examples of this grand master”. He was right.

The paintings had a stimulating life beyond Liotard’s ownership, moving to the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel collection before being confiscated during Napoleonic campaigns. The pair eventually arrived in Britain and were, at one time, owned by the Barings and the Rothschild families. Now, for a few months they hang as a pair in the Red Bedroom at Strawberry Hill, the location chosen by the exhibition curator Silvia Davoli, as a perfect space to show them. Afterwards, a walk through the gardens will reveal many of the English blooms in the floral depictions, growing in Walpole’s flowerbeds.

Van Huysum was born into a family of successful artists from Amsterdam. His grandfather Jan van Huysum the Elder was noted for decorative screens and vases, which is possibly where the intricate detail and the realism of flower painting took the younger van Huysum’s attention. His father Justus van Huysum (1659-1716) taught him to paint and he worked in the family workshop until 1701. His professional solo work included landscapes, but it was for the floral display works that he was celebrated and so greatly in demand.

Detail from ‘Fruits’

Van Huysum commanded phenomenal fees – 3,000 guilders for a painting, equivalent to buying a desirable house in Amsterdam at the time.  The reason for the enormous fee – apart from his talent – was probably down to the amount of time it took to create a work. A still-life took the painter near two years to complete – subsequently signing them with two dates – methodically adding flowers and fruit to the ensemble when they were in season from Spring through to Autumn. So, too, in the lifelike butterflies that flutter around. The insects were attracted to the flowers – ants probably attracted to the fruit – which added naturalism and an enhanced sense of reality. Van Huysum’s riotous floral displays were far-removed from the earlier fashion of memento mori still life pictures stuffed with decaying fruit, a human skull or a dead bird. Van Huysum’s are full of life and so jolly, such a pleasure to see.

Strawberry Hill is a perfect setting for these works. The house is wonderful to visit. It was built as the summer villa of Horace Walpole (1717-97), the son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister. Built between 1748 and 1790, Walpole chose a remarkable architectural style of early Gothic revival that now has its own category, Strawberry Hill Gothic. It is theatrical, flamboyant, fabulous – and has to be seen.

Walpole wrote his own guidebook to the house too, printed on site. Not only did it describe the architectural features of the house but its unique interior design. The furnishings, art objects and paintings were all listed. There were, alas, no paintings by van Huysum, which must have been a disappointment. Walpole wanted to purchase one but was unlucky. He did own one by Jan van Huysum’s younger brother Jacob, an accomplished botanical painter in his own right, who moved to England in 1721. Walpole collected still-life flower paintings by other artists, including the seventeenth-century French painter Jean Baptiste Monnoyer.

And now, centuries on, his house has finally has two van Huysums – if only for a short while.

The Van Huysums are on display at Strawberry Hill House until 8th September 2024.

Strawberry Hill House & Garden, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham TW1 4ST. The house is open Sunday- Wednesday 11am-4pm. For more information, including details of talks, concerts, the annual flower festival, and other events, please visit www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk.

Strawberry Hill House photo by Kilian O’Sullivan