In 1779 the grandson of England’s first Prime Minister was in such financial difficulties that he had to sell his grandfather’s art collection to Catherine II, Empress of Russia. This summer (and now extended by public demand until 24 November) there has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the collection hung again in its original home at Houghton Hall, in Norfolk, England. ‘Houghton Revisited’ has broken all records for visitor numbers for an out of London exhibition because the magnificent loan of seventy pictures. Described as, ‘the crown jewels of the State Hermitage’ with some loans from other collections, the pictures will never again be seen in their original setting.
Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742, was both a builder and a collector. He commissioned the leading architects of the day; Colen Campbell, James Gibbs and William Kent to build his magnificent house Houghton Hall and he filled it with a collection of paintings by artists: Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Maratta and Murillo and many others. The present Marquess of Cholmondeley – a direct descendant of Walpole – describes the collection as, ‘one of the most fabled and envied picture collections of eighteenth century Europe.’ He also writes in the catalogue that he had never imagined the collection would return to Houghton. It was the inspiration of the art historian curator, French-born Dr. Thierry Morel and the commitment of Lord Cholmondeley that turned the inspired idea into reality. However their tireless work had to be supported in Russia and without the help of Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, not one picture would have been allowed to leave Russia.
However it is not just the arrival of magnificent Old Masters that has lured the crowds. It is the unique opportunity to see Houghton as though the great politician and connoisseur, Sir Robert Walpole had personally invited guests to see his complete ensemble of art, interiors and architecture in a perfect landscape, just as it had been completed two centuries ago. In many ways Houghton today has been the beneficiary of vicissitudes in the past. Sir Robert’s heirs were sadly forced to sell the pictures, but they were fortunate that they were bought by such an insatiable and informed collector as Catherine the Great – and the whole collection stayed together in Russia as the core of the Hermitage museum. The continuing financial difficulties of the Walpole family ironically meant that the remarkable house, which was sometimes empty for long periods and unsuccessfully put up for sale, remained untouched.
David Teniers, 'Kitchen', Oil on canvas. Copyright: The State Hermitage Museum
Today when visitors arrive through the magnificent park (don’t miss the wandering herds of rare white deer) it is the architecture of the palatial house that is so striking in the empty landscape. After ascending the great mahogany stair you reach the spectacular Stone Hall – the masterpiece of William Kent and the sculptor Rysbrack. There is not a painting to be seen. Instead you are in a high chamber that pays homage in stone and marble to the ancient classical world and even the statue of Sir Robert Walpole is dressed in the toga of a Roman senator.
The pictures in their right places
The first room off the Stone Hall is the relatively modest Common Parlour now hung as it was in Walpole’s day with 23 masterpieces, the majority of them distinguished portraits. The Kneller portrait of the wood carver Grinling Gibbons hangs above the fireplace surrounded by an intricate pear wood garland carved for the house by Gibbons himself. There are two female portraits by Rubens and Rembrandt and, perhaps the most striking of all, the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. A large painting by David Teniers II, not a portrait, is a fascinatingly detailed view of the interior of a kitchen which is always surrounded by a crowd, trying to discover the allegorical references to the elements.
A glimpse of Walpole’s library reveals how completely unchanged it is and the John Wootton portrait of Walpole shows him not as a powerful politician but as a hunting man in the livery of the King’s Staghounds. The Hermitage loans continue in the Marble Parlour, the dining room decorated by Kent and Rysbrack in the theme of Bacchus and the celebration of wine and the grape. Two giant Van Dyck portraits of robed grandees must have felt like appropriate company for Walpole’s dining guests but more intriguing is the wonderful Veronese of the Resurrection rather casually hung over a doorway.
Religious subject matter becomes more evident as you progress through the rooms. Much of it must have seemed very Roman Catholic and Counter Reformation and it was collected by Walpole purely for its European artistic merit. He owned eight paintings by Poussin and one of the very best, ‘The Holy Family with SS Elisabeth and John the Baptist’ is hanging for the exhibition in the Embroidered Bedchamber. It is such a magnificent picture painted in 1655, the very peak of Poussin’s career and distinctive for its life-like scale.
Left: Carlo Maratta, Pope Clement IX, Oil on canvas. Right: Pieter Paul Rubens, 'Friar’s Head', Oil on canvas. Copyright: The State Hermitage Museum
The Mortlake and Brussels tapestries that you pass on the way to the last two great rooms have been beautifully restored and are further examples of untouched survivals of great quality complemented by the returned paintings. But it is the Roman artist Carlo Maratta (1625 – 1725) who was Walpole’s favourite artist and there is one room devoted to him. After Bernini died in 1680, Maratta was the leading artist in Rome and directed the artists’ Accademia di San Luca. His poignant portrait of the elderly Pope Clement IX that hangs above the fireplace in the Maratta room shows what a remarkable artist he was. He is not an artist much admired today, perhaps because of his now less familiar narrative subject matter; but this room at Houghton will certainly encourage a reappraisal.
The last great room, the Saloon, is remarkable for the completeness of William Kent’s furniture, colour scheme, carving, plasterwork and decorative painting. It has been hung with some large-scale paintings to reflect Kent’s wishes for wall-to-wall canvases. The subject matter is largely mythological and religious painted in dramatic compositions – exactly what appealed to Sir Robert’s pioneering taste for European baroque art that is so thrilling to see again at Houghton.
As you leave the house to be refreshed at one of the excellent restaurants you can visit the exhibition of architectural drawings and loans of silver. ‘Houghton Revisited’ is a completely remarkable exhibition because it succeeds on purely visual and aesthetic grounds. The art and architecture were originally so perfectly conceived together to create a sensual and beautiful world of knowledge and taste. This has been sensationally recreated and is appreciated on its own terms. I am sure that is why it is so deservedly popular. It is the opposite of the didactic museum shows where art is isolated by scholars so that you have to read your way round a darkened gallery. ‘Houghton Revisited’ is a rare and wonderful event so generously supported by the fabulous loans from Russia. Walpole and Catherine the Great would be proud of the way art has brought two nations closer together.