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.