by Roderick Conway Morris

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Houghton Hall
Houghton Hall, Sir Robert Walpole's great Palladian house.

A Magnificent Collection Comes Back to England

By Roderick Conway Morris
KING'S LYNN 21 May 2013


Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister and first political resident in 10 Downing Street, created one of the finest ever collections of Old Masters, including works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Poussin, Luca Giordano and Murillo. He built one of the greatest of all Palladian houses to display them, Houghton Hall, near King's Lynn in Norfolk, where he retired, ennobled as the first Earl of Orford, in 1742.

But Walpole also left his heirs burdened with colossal debt and the Old Master collection was put on the market, snapped up by Catherine the Great and shipped to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in 1779.

The youngest of Sir Robert's sons, Horace Walpole - writer of the first Gothic novel and architect of the first neo-Gothic building, Strawberry Hill, near London - eventually became master of Houghton Hall and 4th Earl of Orford in 1791.

But Horace found this late inheritance a dispiriting experience, writing to a friend: 'I have lived to be the last of that posterity, and to see the glorious collection of the pictures that were the principal ornaments of the house, gone to the North Pole; and to have the house remaining half a ruin on my hands.'

The present incumbent of Houghton Hall is Lord Cholmondeley, descended directly from Mary Walpole, Sir Robert's younger daughter, who married the 3rd Earl of Cholmondeley and whose grandson inherited the estate on the death of her childless uncle Horace.

Lord Cholmondeley, as David Rocksavage, makes feature films and documentaries. He is now presiding over a scenario that, in his words, he has 'often dreamed of, but never believed possible': the return (albeit temporarily) of scores of Walpole's Old Masters to Houghton, where they have been installed in the exact positions they once occupied.

The author of the initiative was the curator Thierry Morel, whose idea was enthusiastically received by Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, and Lord Cholmondeley. The loan of such a large number of works - 70 of the 90 originally displayed in nine rooms designed for them in Walpole's time - by a national museum to a private house is unprecedented, as is the British government's agreement to indemnify the project.

For a little over four months, visitors will be able to see Houghton Hall as it was in its heyday in the 18th century. The time-capsule effect is enhanced by the fact that almost all the furnishings and decorative elements of the rooms are as they were then, and in unusually pristine condition - though Houghton is still a lived-in family house.

The accurate placing of the paintings in their former positions was possible because Houghton Hall and Walpole's collection are among the best documented of any English country house. Horace Walpole compiled a catalog of them and additional contemporary drawings of their arrangement in various rooms were even discovered by Lord Cholmondeley, as recently as the 1990s, in a drawer in Walpole's desk in the library - unchanged since the 18th century and, during the exhibition, open to the public for the first time.

The return of the pictures is also of scholarly and historic importance, offering specialists an opportunity to reassess Walpole as an artistic patron and to re-examine more generally the nature of collecting and the art market during his period, issues illuminated by Mr. Morel, Andrew Moore, John Harris and Larissa Dukelskaya in the show's excellent catalog.

Walpole never traveled abroad but sent his sons on the Grand Tour. All three of them - Robert fils, Edward and Horace - were involved in searching out works for the collection.

Walpole also employed agents and relied on his network of political patronage to obtain pieces. A source for a number of acquisitions, Sir James Waldegrave, when ambassador in France, secured for him Poussin's 'Holy Family With SS. Elizabeth and John the Baptist,' now back in its original gilded frame in the Embroidered Bedchamber, and was rewarded with the Order of the Garter. Sir Joseph Danvers gave Walpole Van Dyck's 'Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby,' now on show in the Marble Parlour, and in due course received a baronetcy - to name but two such examples.

Walpole himself bought at auction, being prepared to pay high prices for works he esteemed. The Walpoles were gentry, who took their name from a Norfolk village and were lords of the manor of Houghton by 1307. But country squires they remained until Sir Robert's meteoric career rocketed the family into the upper echelons of the aristocracy. Having inherited few works of any value, he nonetheless managed to establish in 25 years an art collection of a kind that it has taken other titled families generations to amass.

The building of Houghton Hall to display his collection in an ideal setting was a further sign of his sophisticated tastes and willingness to spend lavishly on architecture, furniture and the decorative arts. Walpole told a neighbor that he had spent £100,000, or $152,000, on the Hall - though he destroyed the receipts - and his debts stood at half that when he died.

The ultimate model for Houghton as a house-museum was surely Cardinal Scipio Borghese's villa in Rome. But this being an English country house, provision had to be made for the entertainment of Walpole's hard-riding and bibulous visitors and political cronies. Thus, as a friend noted, 'the base, or rustic story' on the ground floor was 'dedicated to fox-hunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business. The next is the floor of taste, expense, state and parade.'

At a time when there was a deep suspicion in England of all that smacked of 'popery,' with a major Catholic Jacobite rebellion erupting in 1745, the year of his death, Walpole evidently saw no reason to reject beautiful canvases because of their religious associations. Among the pictures returned are a fine portrait of Pope Clement IX, one of several by Carlo Maratta, a fashionable Roman painter at the time. The Carlo Maratta Room has now been recreated, with the reinstalling of eight Maratta canvases and an additional 14 by other 17th-century painters.

Catherine the Great bought more than 200 pictures, but it emerged, when Lord Cholmondeley found Andrea del Sarto's 'Virgin and Child With Saints' in an attic, that one of them had never been dispatched.

The other 203 paintings had an adventurous journey to St. Petersburg: The frigate 'Natalia,' which departed in the spring of 1779, was shipwrecked on the coast of Holland and the paintings had to be transferred to another vessel. Catherine was highly appreciative of her acquisitions, writing to Baron Grimm the following year, 'The 'Walpoles' spent the winter happily, although in some disorder in my gallery.'

Of the original 203 pieces, 163 are still in the Hermitage and other museums in Russia and the Ukraine. Emperor Nicholas I sold a number in 1854, one of which, Sir Godfrey Kellner's 'Portrait of Joseph Carreras,' was reacquired for Houghton. Some were sold off in the Soviet era, including Frans Hals's 'Portrait of a Young Man' and Velázquez's 'Pope Innocent X,' which were returned here from Washington.

Horace Walpole had written gloomily of the first disposal of the pictures: 'To be sure, I should wish they were rather sold to the Crown of England than to that of Russia where they will be burnt in a wooden palace on the first insurrection.' In fact, there was a fire at Houghton in 1789 in which the north wing, where most of the paintings had been before the sale, and the Picture Gallery attached to the house were destroyed.

Houghton Revisited. The Walpole Masterpieces From Catherine the Great's Hermitage. Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Through Sept. 29.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024