The Walpole Paintings at Houghton Hall: A Brief Homecoming

Marina Vaizey

Magazine issue: 
#4 2013 (41)


In 1779, the massively energetic and determined Catherine the Great, Empress of all Russia, continued her unprecedented patronage by acquiring the internationally famed Walpole collection of art from George, the Third Earl of Orford (1730-1791), the bankrupt and decadent grandson of its founder Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), First Earl of Orford, who was Britain's first Prime Minister.

In an unprecedented and elegant reconstruction, the Hermitage museum and several other public and private collections and collectors sent back some 70 paintings from the original Walpole collection to hang as once they did in the grand staircase and ten other great rooms on the principal floor, the piano nobile, of the great Pal-ladian mansion of Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Over the summer of 2013 the art was shown in its original 18th-century showcase; even some original frames were rediscovered, and in an amazing piece of serendipity, notes for the original arrangements for display were discovered in a desk at Houghton by the Seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, a descendant of Walpole, who is the current owner of Houghton.

Politically astute, highly intelligent, and possessed of unusual foresight, combined with ferocious and irresistible energy, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) enjoyed herself immensely by buying from the grandees of Europe the great collections they could no longer afford to keep for themselves. In so doing she played probably the most significant role in forming what has been for several centuries one of the greatest collections of fine and decorative arts in the world, that held today at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Catherine was ironic and mischievous; according to the major exhibition "Catherine the Great: Art for Empire", a 2006 collaboration between the Hermitage and the major Canadian galleries in Toronto and Montreal, she announced, "It's not for the love of art, but for voracity. I'm not a connoisseur, I'm a glutton." In this, perhaps, there is a resemblance between the larger-than-life character of Sir Robert Walpole, as he reshaped the politics of England, and the overpowering activities of Catherine. But the Houghton exhibition made clear a fundamental difference between them, too: Walpole, however public his collection may have been when in London, collected for himself, while Catherine flexed her artistic acquisitiveness in the service of Russia.

Catherine was omnivorous: she was to have her own opera and ballet company, orchestra and string quartet. Her competiveness may well have been honed by the fact that she, a minor German princess, and not only a Protestant but a Lutheran, had metamorphosed by her own iron will, incredible discipline, and unprecedented vitality, into a Russian Orthodox Russian-speaking Empress. Her ruthlessness in acquiring the various collections became a cultural advantage for her adopted nation. She collected voraciously from Europe, the Walpole collection being only one such acquisition. Even Frederick the Great of Prussia, for example, who was so responsible for her Russian connections, and therefore might have been considered an ally, was not immune from her attentions: she snapped up a collection that her compatriot had been eyeing up for his charming palace of Sans Souci. The Prussian treasury was drastically depleted by the Seven Years War, and Catherine who had already undertaken the construction of the Winter Palace, by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Ras-trelli, not only saw her opportunity, but acted on it.

The process was efficient. Catherine deployed many agents, for various purposes, throughout Europe, and therefore had a network feeding information to her and her aides. She had an extensive correspondence with the leading intellectuals of the day, many of them French (which was the language of the Russian court), so was completely up-to-date with contemporary European culture. Even the great French philosopher Diderot, whose library she purchased, and whose financial well-being she ensured, was pressed into the service of her ambitions as a connoisseur.

These were pan-European agents brought in to build a pan-European collection for a colossal country that was flexing its muscles on the world stage. One historian described her reign as dragging Russia out of an historic medieval torpor and into the modern world. The international collections were a potent symbol of her intent, and she rapidly expanded its housing, building with the aid of her foreign cohort of architects the Small Hermitage, the Large Hermitage and the Hermitage theatre. Ambassadors and agents were active in Holland, France and Germany, and in England the sale of the Walpole collection was brought to her attention by the Russian ambassador to the Court of St. James, Alexei Musin-Pushkin. ("His grandson Lord Or-ford is taking the liberty of placing everything, or part of it, at Your Imperial Majesty's feet," he wrote. "It is worthy, in the opinion of all connoisseurs, of belonging to one of the greatest sovereigns.") In a little more than 20 years Catherine had acquired the collections of Count Heinrich von Bruhl, Baron Pierre Crozat, Count Badouin, John Lyde Brown, and of course the Walpole collection, itself symptomatic of the perceptive acquisitions by English grandees of works by the great artists of continental Europe.

In so doing, Catherine II saw herself as carrying on the attitude, purpose and what was to become a tradition, of Peter the Great, who saw culture and collecting art and antiquities as genuinely a matter of state: it was an example of cultural diplomacy before that term had been invented, and a way of showing off Russia not only as a part of Europe, but as a dominant part both culturally and intellectually. Collecting art and antiquities was part of Catherine's political agenda. The more significant the provenance - that the collections had hitherto belonged to the noble and influential, the politically and economically powerful of Europe - the better, for then the more such acquisitions tangibly demonstrated the power, political, economic and cultural, of Russia.

Catherine also commissioned widely, and the artistic connection with Britain was typified by her imaginative patronage of the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Hermitage houses three major paintings on historical subjects: "The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents" (1786-1788), symbolising young Russia's growing strength, and "The Continence of Scipio" (1788-1789) and "Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus" (1788), both intended for Count Potemkin, her political and military collaborator, as well as lover.

Sir Robert Walpole, the Whig politician, himself a gambler and a consummate patron of the arts, is generally recognised as the first Prime Minister of England, because of his dominance of his peers and colleagues in the ruling Cabinet. His controversial career, impressive personality, scandalous behaviour, political acumen, and support for the Hanoverian succession - he served under George I and George II - made him both famous and notorious. He presided over various political and economically dangerous incidents, including the infamous "South Sea bubble"; while morals and public behaviour at the time were lax and even corrupt and economically dangerous, paradoxically these were decades of peace and economic prosperity. Interestingly the phrase "prime" minister was originally almost a term of abuse: as "prime" minister Walpole was lampooned for his perceived personal extravagance and, perhaps as a Whig, intemperate government. But since Walpole's time the leader of the party in power has been the Prime Minister, residing also in 10 Downing Street, Walpole's home when he was in power. When his life was in government, and London, he only spent about three months of the year in his magnificent newly-built home Houghton Hall in Norfolk, but they were full of entertainment and activity.

Two years before the Walpole Collection was sold to Catherine the Great by Walpole's profligate grandson, the Third Earl of Orford, the British government had refused to purchase the art for the British nation. When rumours of the forthcoming sale became public, the subject was hotly debated: the radical Member of Parliament, John Wilkes, speechifying in the House of Commons, declared that the British Museum should acquire the collection not only for its intrinsic aesthetic value but for its standing as an example that would act as a didactic aid to the emerging artists of the British School. A newspaper account at the time of the sale declared that the sale dishonoured England. An early 19th century guide to the Hermitage indeed commented that England, having lost the Walpole collection, would never make up the opportunity to establish a National Gallery "worthy of its rank as a civilised nation". The failure of the government, or indeed the royal family, to act to save a collection for the public good has proved a recurrent theme in British political life, and this was a pattern that was often repeated. No lessons were learnt: a few decades later, for example, the British government also refused to buy the great collection particularly of drawings - Leonardo and Michelangelo among them - amassed by Sir Thomas Lawrence, the British artist who paradoxically is well represented in Russia, with some of his subjects masterly portraits of Russian aristocrats who were engaged in their own Grand Tours of Europe.

Thus, in 1779, England's loss proved Russia's gain. The sale was negotiated by James Christie, the eponymous founder of the London auction house which still exists, and (whilst no longer owned by the British) is still headquartered in London, and one of the two leading global auction houses.

The price which was negotiated by Christie was £40,555, then an enormous sum, perhaps equivalent to £7 million (around $10 million) today, although all such figures are relative. Just over 200 works of art were shipped to Russia. There was an outcry of disbelief in Britain, and forlorn hopes were articulated to reverse the deal, but it was too late: as Catherine wrote to a friend, "Your humble servant has already got her claws on them and will no more let them go than a cat would a mouse." In the case of the Walpole collection, the only consolation fate offered was the fact that ten years after the sale, in 1789, Houghton's Picture Gallery was destroyed by fire: if the Walpole pictures had remained there, there is every chance they would have been lost to posterity.

Almost all works at the Houghton Hall exhibition came from the Hermitage, although there were notable exceptions: the enormous ceiling painting of "The Judgement of Paris" by Carlo Maratta normally hangs on the great staircase of the mid-18th century rococo Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (Puskhin) outside St. Petersburg. Torturous negotiations were eventually successful and great technical skill allowed its visit to Norfolk. Houghton, grand as it is - with 101 rooms, where, it is said, as many as 110 beds could be provided - is on a small scale compared not only to the Hermitage, but also to the staggering royal palaces and estates in the countryside surrounding St. Petersburg. But the impulse behind Houghton was similar - to make an ensemble both inside and outside of the highest artistic and aesthetic order, with landscape, building and interior in harmony.

Houghton was built in the astonishingly short period of 13 years, from 1722 to 1735, specifically to show off the collection that Sir Robert Walpole had acquired. He too depended on agents, among them the connoisseur Sir Horace Mann, in his time the British representative in Florence, as well as Walpole's brother Horatio, and his trio of sons, including the aesthete and Gothic novelist Horace Walpole, briefly his unmarried heir, who wrote extensively about the collection in the 1747 published guide "Aedes Walpolianae: or, a Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton-Hall in Norfolk" (with its wonderful frontispiece quotation, "Artists and Plans reliev'd my solemn Hours; I founded Palaces, and planted Bow'rs").

At first the art was on display in several London houses, including 10 Downing Street; Horace Walpole remarked that "Queens and crowds admired them" in Chelsea and Westminster. Then all was moved to Houghton. Walpole was a larger than life character, physically energetic, an enthusiastic sportsman - particularly keen on hunting - an enthusiastic host of his fellow countrymen and of course politicians, at home in the city and even more at home in the country, a strategist and ambitious risk-taking politician and a man of greedy and intelligent taste. The feasts he hosted at Houghton were legendary, and expensive. A guest remarked that one floor of the great house was for "fox-hunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business," with separate rooms for huge meals; the grand floor was the "floor of taste, expense, state and parade". What with such hospitality and the scale of the building itself - Walpole himself intentionally destroyed the receipts for Houghton's creation, estimated at several hundred thousand pounds - and collecting, when he died he left debts of about £50,000.

Although lampooned and caricatured for what was seen as his coarse way of living, Walpole was highly educated: at Eton he was a scholar (designated so by competitive exam), and he studied for two years at King's College Cambridge, until he had to leave to help his father administer his estate. His exquisite library demonstrates his erudition and taste. It contains many an architectural history, folios of illustrations, records of collections of antiquities, classics of literature and history: it is said it would have been typical of an erudite academic, and Horace Walpole remarked that his father Sir Robert had a passion "for study and learning extraordinary". Certainly the programme for the in situ decoration of Houghton, the murals featuring gods and goddesses, and a sculpture of Sir Robert in the robes of antiquity which is shown in the great Stone Hall, which also houses antique busts of Roman emperors are typical of his taste -and, no less, his aspirations. The Stone Hall also houses the life-size bronze version of the Laocoon, based on the Vatican's ancient marble which was excavated in Rome in the early-16th century.

The Common Parlour was the family dining room, and therefore one of the few lived-in rooms (as opposed to Houghton's more ceremonial rooms), which housed highlights of the collection, including a carving attributed to that genius of woodcarving, Grinling Gibbons. Here the "returnees" include Kneller's portrait of Grinling Gibbons, Van Dyck's portrait of Inigo Jones, the great architect of among other baroque masterpieces London's Banqueting House. Also on view is Rembrandt's profoundly affecting "Portrait of an Elderly Lady" (now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow).

The Marble Parlour, with its marble walls, hosts flamboyant and opulent portraits by Van Dyck of the Earl of Danby, in his Knight of the Garter robes, and Sir Thomas Wharton, resplendent in red. The chimneypiece, in situ by the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, takes as its subject "The Sacrifice to Bacchus". Walpole and his friends were infamous consumers of wine: in one season alone, 1733, of banqueting the household returned over 6,200 empty bottles of claret to his wine merchant (a commendable, early example of recycling).

In the Cabinet Room William Kent designed a ceiling painting centred on the goddess of wisdom, Minerva, holding a shield bearing the Walpole arms; a superb Poussin from the Hermitage, "The Holy Family", was restored to its original position in the Embroidered Bedchamber. The Green Velvet Bedchamber's ceiling was adorned by William Kent's ceiling painting of "Aurora", goddess of dawn, as well as superb Flemish tapestries. Walpole's favourite artist was Carlo Maratta, and eight of that artist's works from the original collection were on show, accompanied by several Murillos. The Saloon, the largest room on the principal floor, has an octagonal ceiling showing Kent's "Apollo Driving his Chariot of the Sun", with much of Kent's bespoke and site-specific furniture on complementary display. Paintings by Paris Bordone, Luca Giordano and Salvator Rosa were among others revisiting from the Hermitage.

Houghton was designed by James Gibbs and Colen Campbell, aided by Thomas Ripley, and its truly fabulous interiors rooms, their colour schemes, much furniture and even some picture frames were by William Kent, accompanied by his draughtsman and architect colleague Isaac Ware (who, in an amazing example of social mobility, had started life as a chimney sweep), who recorded in attractive and beautifully detailed drawings the sumptuous interiors. Mantelpieces by Rysbrack, painted ceilings, gilded and papered walls, are all an integral part of Houghton: the most gifted of craftsmen using the best of materials realised the ensembles. The contrast of the imposing, grand and impressive but comparatively restrained neo-classical architecture and the sumptuous ornate decorative interiors, which were also flooded with natural light - the better to look out at and admire the park - was and is particularly piquant. For those who know the great imperial palaces of Russia, although they are on an almost unimaginably grander scale, there are some satisfying echoes at Houghton, with the disciplined, even at times restrained exteriors, in contrast to the gilded, ornamented, decorated, glowing, glittering interiors.

This unprecedented loan (a much smaller number of the Walpole paintings was shown in the then Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, in Central London, in 2003) is literally unique, for it is exceptionally rare that a collection, once sold and dispersed, returns to its original settings. Every tribute is due to Thierry Morel, the leading French art historian of the period, who conceived and curated this remarkable exhibition; he has been the director of the Hermitage Foundation UK, and is currently a member of the advisory board of the Hermitage Foundation USA. In the case of Houghton we recapture a specifically individual group, but a group nevertheless representative of English 18th-century taste: genre, mythology, Biblical scenes, portraits of well-known figures, and Dutch, Flemish, French and Italian paintings. The vicissitudes of history have impacted on Catherine's original purchase: some was looted or disappeared during World War II, while a number of works were sold in the 1850s under Tsar Nicholas I (who selectively adjusted his collections by parting with some works to acquire others), and later in the early 1930s under Stalin (less successfully, since a number of the paintings sent to international dealers eventually returned unsold). Velazquez's small but uncannily vibrant portrait of "Pope Innocent X" and Frans Hals' "Portrait of a Young Man" went to Andrew Mellon in exchange for hard currency, and are now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington. Other works originally in the Hermitage were sent elsewhere in Russia in the 1920s, the majority to what is now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, others to regional collections in Russia, as was common at the time. War twice forced journeys of evacuation: from September 1917 to the end of 1920, when artworks were evacuated to Moscow, and again from July 1941 to October 1945, when they escaped the Blockade of Leningrad to find safe storage in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in the Urals.

Their extraordinary return to Houghton has more than repaid the effort involved. It allows us not only to engage with remarkable works of art but to briefly inhabit a time capsule, again in ways that uncannily echo the great collections in Russia, where the original imperial impulses are now spectacularly preserved by the state in as historically correct a manner as possible.

There are differences of course, and it was the intimacy of seeing the Walpole collection at home that proved so beguiling. Spacious as the galleries at the Hermitage are, the collections there are not normally grouped by original collector, but by theme, school, geography and chronology: thus Rembrandts (no matter where from), are shown with Rembrandts, Van Dyck with Van Dyck, as is normal museological practice. The only thing shared perhaps with Houghton is on occasion a sense of space, of light, and of luxury: there is hardly a museum anywhere that matches the sumptuous interiors of the Hermitage, built no less to "show off" its collections.

But the rooms at Houghton were in Walpole's time very much lived-in; the house has been through various vicissitudes and periods of neglect over the years, but the First Marquess of Cholmondely ensured that the actual decorations and furniture at Houghton more or less remained intact, purchasing them to ensure their survival. Much later, the grandparents of the current, Seventh Marquess of Cholmondely came to Houghton to live in 1918: his grandmother was Sybil Sas-soon, heiress to great fortune - her mother was born a Rothschild -who married the Earl of Rocksavage, who became the Fifth Marquess.

Sybil, a gifted pianist, and connoisseur of art, was bilingual in French and English, and even began to re-learn Persian (her Sassoon ancestors had come from Iraq via India) in her old age. She set about restoring Houghton to its former grandeur with enormous tact, taste and tenacity: one of her later triumphs was the acquisition from a dealer in 1975 of Sir Godfrey Kneller's portrait from the 1680s of the Spanish poet Joseph Carreras, an original part of the Walpole collection that had been sold by Tsar Nicholas I in 1854, and its return to Houghton. The couple were acquainted with all who mattered both culturally and politically in international society: Sybil was not only a close friend of the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (who painted both her mother, Aline Rothschild, and Sybil herself), but also, over decades, of the Queen Mother, a neighbour at Sandringham, the royal estate that is close by Houghton.

It is this tradition of revival and renewal that is part of the inheritance of Houghton Hall's current incumbent, the Seventh Marquess, David Cholmondeley. He is intellectually engaged with past, present and future, and "Houghton Revisited", reuniting works of art which have not been seen together for centuries is for Houghton's current owner a dream come true. It was he who found in Walpole's library desk notes and documents showing how the original collection had been arranged. No detail has been too obscure to investigate, and major efforts have been made to ensure that interiors are correct: the most arduous such transformation has perhaps been the replacement with green silk velvet, which returned the Carlo Maratta Room, which housed paintings by one of Walpole's favourite artists, to its original style.

David Cholmondeley, as well as being the hereditary Lord Chamberlain, and responsible in that capacity for attending the Queen for certain ceremonial occasions, was himself a film maker, and like his grandmother Sybil and his sister Rose, is a gifted pianist and musician. He assiduously attends to the maintenance and enhancement of his heritage, and is also a patron of the contemporary arts. Visitors to Houghton can see in its marvellously landscaped park choice selections of current work by leading international sculptors. The park itself was planted with oak and sweet chestnut in the 18th century, and David Cholmondeley has recently enlivened the landscape by adding a number of contemporary works of art throughout the park and gardens for visitors to discover as they walk through the grounds. These include works by James Turrell, Richard Long, Stephen Cox, Zhan Wang, Anya Gallaccio and Jeppe Hein, a choice selection of some of the leading sculptors of the 21st century. "Discover" is the apt verb: the location is subtle, the works embedded in the landscape, and appropriate to the setting.

"Houghton Revisited" served several purposes. Although it might seem that its extraordinary achievement of bringing back nearly a third of what was sold in 1779 was an exercise in nostalgia, Houghton has been vividly cared for over the past century, maintained and conserved. Thus, the physical environment, the absolutely up-to-date scholarship, accompanying publications, and the opening of house and collections to the public, was thoroughly modern.

"Houghton Revisited" proved a superb example of Anglo-Russian co-operation, involving many international links. The sponsors of this immensely costly exercise were not only major corporations with links to both countries - among them BP, Christie's, and the Oracle Group - but also included a number of supporting charitable Foundations, and individuals who have strong links to both British and Russian history. It was completely fitting, chronologically, that this magnificent and immensely complicated artistic enterprise, which among other things has given the private Houghton Hall temporary status as a public museum, served as a "prequel" to 2014 - the year that marks the 250th "birthday" of the Hermitage, and will witness the forthcoming, first-ever official UK-Russia Year of Culture.





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