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Houghton Hall: Return journey

Published 27 February 2013

Sir Robert Walpole’s priceless 18th-century collection returns to Houghton Hall

  • From the Spring 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    If you can make only one trip this summer, it must be to Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Over a period of five months, Houghton will stage one of the most outstanding exhibitions ever seen in a British country house. Over 60 paintings from the great collection amassed in the mid-18th century by Sir Robert Walpole, and later bought by Catherine the Great of Russia, will return from St Petersburg to Houghton Hall. More than that, thanks to lists, inventories and even the recently discovered original hanging plans found neatly folded in a drawer in Walpole’s desk, most of the paintings will hang in the same positions that they occupied in the 1740s. The grandest will be back in the great gilded frames first designed for them by William Kent.

  • Paris Bordone, Venus, Flora, Mars and Cupid (Allegory)

    Paris Bordone, Venus, Flora, Mars and Cupid (Allegory), 1553-55.

    State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

  • The present owner, Walpole’s descendant, the seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, is working with Thierry Morel, former Director of the London Friends of the Hermitage, to recreate the precise settings of Walpole’s day. In the White Drawing Room, for example, once dedicated to the Roman painter Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), the Regency silk wall hangings will give way to the original green velvet, together with a miraculously preserved suite of chairs. To complete the ensemble, Maratta’s Judgement of Paris returns to Houghton after being painstakingly removed from the ceiling of Catherine the Great’s summer palace at Tsarskoye Selo outside St Petersburg.

    In the late 1720s, Walpole – Britain’s first Prime Minister – was continually lampooned for his unscrupulous patronage and excessive pretensions. Jealous aristocrats were stunned by the building of Houghton Hall, his Palladian “palace” in the countryside near King’s Lynn. Designed by Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, with interiors by Kent (who designed the interior of Burlington House), Houghton took seven years to build before it was finished in 1729.

    To clear the site, the local village was pulled down and rebuilt outside the park. The interior shone with fine Italian plaster work, silk and velvet wall hangings, marble fireplaces with fabulous reliefs by Rysbrack (1694-1770) gilded mirrors, mahogany doors and grand suites of furniture, all designed by Kent. Through an accident of history, the house was closed during much of the 19th century, and when re-opened after the First World War, it was a time capsule of 18th-century grandeur. All that was lacking was the extraordinary collection of paintings that Walpole had slowly acquired during his long period in office.

    When he finally fell from power in 1742, and brought his treasures from Downing Street to Houghton with him, Walpole owned, perhaps, the greatest private art collection in Europe. He was helped by friends and fellow collectors, such as the Duke of Chandos and the Earl of Pembroke – who gave him the bronze cast of the Borghese Gladiator by Le Sueur (1616-55) – and by agents and eager place-seekers who depended on his patronage, such as Sir Horace Mann. But his hardest working collaborators were his brother Horatio and his three sons Robert, Edward and Horace. After Horace returned from his Grand Tour in 1739-41, he compiled Aedes Walpoliana, published in 1748, which compared Walpole’s magnificent collection to those of the princes and noblemen of Europe. ‘There are not many collections left in Italy more worth seeing than this at Houghton,’ it stated. Visitors flocked here, leaving amazed accounts of the rooms, the meals, the vast park full of rare white deer to match the house – and the paintings.

  • Velázquez, Pope Innocent X

    Velázquez, Pope Innocent X.

    National Gallery of Art, Washington. Houghton Hall.

  • Walpole’s collection was eclectic and wideranging in nature, biased towards the 16th and 17th centuries, and this summer’s exhibition is more remarkable for the ensemble than for individual works. But there are many real highlights, ranging from the dramatic Moses Striking the Rock and gravely monumental Holy Family with St Elizabeth and John the Baptist by Poussin (1594-1665), to a brooding, tender portrait of an old woman by Rembrandt (1606-69). Among the astonishing galaxy of works are paintings by the baroque artists Guido Reni (Walpole’s costliest purchase) and Salvator Rosa, beloved by 18th-century connoisseurs. There are works by Luca Giordano and Rubens and a stark Crucifixion by Murillo (1618-82); The Holy Family by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1531); and the lovely Adoration of the Shepherds by Bonifazio de’ Pitati (1487-1553). Spiritual is matched by secular: a serenely sexy Venus, Flora, Mars and Cupid (Allegory) by Paris Bordone (1500-71), clusters of Dutch landscapes and still lifes, a genre painting by Teniers, and striking portraits by Lely, Kneller, and Van Dyck (including one of Inigo Jones, from 1632-33).

    Not surprisingly, the Hermitage collection suffered over the years: paintings were lost, sold, dispersed to other galleries. Two Houghton paintings are coming back from museums in Siberia, while two of the most valuable, Pope Innocent X by Velázquez (1599-1660) and Portrait of a Young Man by Frans Hals (1581-1666) were sold to the American collector Andrew Mellon in the Stalin era and will be here on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, “reunited with the others,” says Lord Cholmondeley, “after 80 years apart”.

  • The White Drawing Room at Houghton Hall

    The White Drawing Room at Houghton Hall

    The room will be transformed to its original design with green velvet for the exhibition

    Houghton Hall

  • The collection devoured Walpole’s wealth: at his death in 1745 he left huge debts, and his grandson George, third Earl of Orford, gambled away the rest. The only answer was to sell. The news provoked uproar. John Wilkes appealed in the House of Commons for the British Museum, founded in 1753, to acquire the collection. The museum, Wilkes argued, possessed few valuable paintings “yet we are anxious to have an English school of painters. If we expect to rival the Italian, the Flemish, or even the French school, our artists must have before their eyes the finished works of the greatest masters”. Sadly, put off, not by Walpole’s tarnished reputation, but by the price of £40,055, both king and parliament declined. By contrast another potential purchaser, Catherine, Empress of Russia, responded swiftly and eagerly.

    Influenced by the example of Peter the Great, Catherine first established her picture gallery in the Hermitage in 1764, gradually buying up complete collections of paintings, many of which had been built up over generations, from Berlin, Brussels, Dresden, Geneva and Paris. This frenzy of purchasing made the Hermitage equal to the finest European collections: by 1770 Catherine’s gallery contained 2,080 paintings. Hearing of the Houghton sale, her ambassador in London, Alexei Musin-Pushkin, wrote: “Your Majesty has perhaps heard of the collection of paintings of the celebrated Robert Walpole… His grandson Lord Orford is taking the liberty of placing everything, or part of it, at Your Imperial Majesty’s feet. It is worthy, in the opinion of all connoisseurs, of belonging to one of the greatest sovereigns”.

    Catherine pounced, joking that she felt like a cat with a mouse. The deal was one of the first arranged by the auctioneer James Christie, and in the spring of 1779, some 204 paintings were loaded onto the frigate Natalia. It was the most valuable collection to leave the country since the sale of Charles I’s goods after his execution in 1649. Despite rumours of a shipwreck, the cargo arrived safely, and the following spring Catherine wrote “the ‘Walpoles’ spent the winter happily, although in some disorder in my gallery”.

    This year is the 250th anniversary of Catherine’s accession. The Houghton exhibition, a triumph of international partnership, thus celebrates two extraordinary personalities: Walpole and the Empress. Above all it offers a glorious, unmissable opportunity to see a great collection returned to the setting created for it almost three centuries ago.

  • Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage Houghton Hall, 17 May – 29 September.

    Jenny Uglow’s books include award-winning biographies of William Hogarth and Thomas Bewick.

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