Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage
Houghton Hall, Kings Lynn, Norfolk, United Kingdom, 17 May to 24 November 2013
One of the great country houses and emblematic of Palladian architecture, Houghton Hall will figure in any survey of the history of English taste. It was built between 1722-1735 and represents an inflection point in the evolution of stately homes, away from the aggravated grandeur of the Baroque towards a more restrained, Neo-classical style. More palatial than the typical country “seat”, Houghton’s fame is linked to that of its first owner, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745 | Fig. 1), who was also the first prime minister of England in the modern sense of the term, as well as the former home of a fabled picture collection. Sir Robert intended that his collection be an inalienable part of Houghton, but the extravagance of the Walpole family meant that it was sold to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1779. The sale caused an outcry in England, but the paintings became the cornerstone of the great Russian institution known as the State Hermitage Museum. Now, almost miraculously, some sixty paintings from this historic collection have returned to Houghton for six months, enabling visitors to see the interiors as Sir Robert Walpole intended.
Houghton Revisited was the brainchild of the French historian of collections, Thierry Morel, whose contacts with the Hermitage made possible this once-in-a-lifetime loan. Visitors can experience the house, much as it was in its glory days, with a succession of outstanding works from the major European Schools, brilliantly framed by the interiors of William Kent and Michael Rysbrack. Some works, such as Rubens’s magnificent, full-length portrait of his wife Hélène Fourment, could not travel because of fragility. Nevertheless, the sheer fact of this loan is a triumph of diplomacy and a touchstone in the history of collections. It has also been an unexpected success with the public in that some eight hundred visitors have been trooping through the staterooms and grounds of Houghton each day.
The exhibition records a fascinating moment in the intersection of politics and art. Walpole’s rise in parliament was stratospheric, aided by his position amongst the Whig landed gentry and a strategic marriage to an heiress. The present Houghton Hall is the third house in a remote corner of Norfolk. Sir Robert had been prime minister and in control of governmental patronage for seven years when he began his audacious new house—really more of a palace that a country seat. The moment was significant as was his choice of Colen Campbell as his original architect, for Campbell had just published a manifesto for a new style in architecture, Vitruvius Britannicus, in 1715. Part clarion call and part self-promotion, Campbell’s book argued for a return to a more purely classical style of building, which is now known as Palladianism. Although not a gifted architect, Campbell was well connected and manoeuvred himself into the patronage of the great Whig families. While his professed source of inspiration was the architecture of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), he grafted the Italian architect’s modestly scaled buildings onto the far grander scale of the English landed aristocracy. Houghton rises out of the flat Norfolk landscape like an apparition (Fig. 2), the great central block of the house capped by four domes (an incongruous interpolation by a later architect, James Gibbs); covered arcades connect the main house to service wings containing the kitchen and laundry. Where Palladio’s villas are built of brick covered in stucco, Houghton is encased in large blocks of masonry sandstone, rising up over three storeys and comprising over one hundred rooms.
Sir Robert never traveled abroad and never experienced the grand tour, except vicariously through his son, the writer and wit Horace Walpole. Yet he had the cultivated taste and classical education that informed his collecting habits, and he probably regarded his house and artworks as an extension of his public role. His agents scoured Europe for paintings and sculptures, and Walpole was not averse to paying record prices for “must-have” items by artists like Rubens or Poussin. He was aided in his strategy by the painter-turned architect, William Kent, who gave the finishing touches to the interior while his rival Thomas Ripley supervised much of the building work. Kent’s interiors are well preserved in the great reception rooms of the stone hall, marble parlour, saloon, and embroidered bedchamber. His work encompassed designing furniture, the picture frames and aligning the layout of the paintings with the color scheme of the walls. He was abetted in this enterprise by Rysbrack, who sheathed the formal dining room and the stone hall in marbles and created two of his most stunning reliefs as overmantles for fireplaces.
The parade rooms offer a calculated sequence of velvet hangings, tapestries, and, of course, paintings, all of which suggest princely splendor. Walpole was reputed to have spent as much as £200,000 in the money of his day on Houghton—a colossal amount—and he took pains to destroy all the bills relating to it out of a sense of discretion. After his fall from power in 1742, he had his picture collection transferred from Downing Street to his country estate but had only three years in which to enjoy them. He left hidden debts of some £40,000 at his death, which were further exacerbated by his grandson George, who was not a model of sanity when he succeeded to the estate in 1751. After years of profligacy, George was compelled to sell the majority of the paintings, and the fledgling auction house of John Christie was poised to mount a public auction. At that time, the comprehensive nature of the Walpole Collection led to some efforts to buy them for the nation as the nucleus of a national gallery, but Catherine the Great got there first. A secret sale was negotiated in 1778, and when the news became public, it aroused consternation but no attempts to block the transfer of the works to Russia where 204 paintings arrived in 1779. The majority still graces the Hermitage although some were transferred to other Russian museums; a few were sold by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s for hard currency and ended up in American museums.
The story of Houghton is fascinating, and it lends an added cachet to Houghton Revisited. One enters the house today through the ground floor where some of the family portraits, normally seen upstairs, are on view, together with documents that trace the evolution of the interior display. These include drawings of the hang by Kent, which were sent to Walpole for comment or approval and demonstrate the active collaboration of the prime minister while Houghton was taking shape in his absence. The ascent to the main floor is via the Great Staircase, designed by Kent as a mahogany extravaganza surrounding a stone aedicule. The effect is almost achromatic, even at the main level where one encounters the bronze version of a Hellenistic statue known as the Borghese Gladiator. Of historic importance, the bronze was an early cast of the statue by the French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur, who made it for the 8th Earl of Pembroke before 1645. The provenance is significant because Le Sueur was the court sculptor of Charles I, and the subliminal message was that the House of Walpole had become the natural successor to the House of Stuart.
The semidarkness of the staircase does not prepare one for the brilliance of the Stone Hall, a double cube in the manner of Inigo Jones, decorated all in marble and white stucco, save for another Grand Tour trophy, a splendid bronze after the Vatican Gallery’s Laocoön, cast by Louis XIV’s sculptor François Girardon. Here Kent engineered a luminous coup de theatre while showcasing Walpole’s taste as a man of classical erudition. The hall would have been the first room seen by visitors on a ceremonial entrance, doubling as a welcoming hall and echoing the Roman tablinum in which a senator would greet his clients. The allusion to an ancient house or villa is underscored by the numerous antique busts and cinerary urns that adorn the walls, which rest upon the backs of benches designed by Kent. Sir Robert himself is represented by a marble bust all’antica over the mantelpiece and in front of Rysbrack’s handsome relief, A Sacrifice to Diana. The point is underscored by an apotheosis of the House of Walpole in the stuccoed ceiling with its coat of arms and medallions of Sir Robert, his first wife, eldest son and daughter-in-law.
The sequence of the tour conforms to traffic patterns of tourism en masse, but it still gives a comprehensive impression of what an eighteenth-century visitor would have experienced. The rooms in the wings are taken in before what would have been the logical next step, the Saloon or large reception room the shares the central spine of the house with the stone hall. It was conceived as a foil to the hall, for here Sir Robert’s finest and largest paintings were on display, set off by crimson velvet and a ceiling painting by Kent of Apollo in his chariot as the Sun God. Kent’s furniture is upholstered in the same fabric as the walls while the black and yellow marble fireplace incorporates a relief of the Garter Star in white marble, commemorating Sir Robert’s appointment to this highest order of knighthood in 1726. Although the hang is not identical to that of Walpole’s day, it conveys a sense of the pattern and subject matter as well as the strengths of the collection before the sale. It is largely seventeenth-century with a predominance of the Neapolitan School in three strong canvases by Luca Giordano and a remarkable and unusual Return of the Prodigal Son by Salvator Rosa. Walpole’s holdings in sixteenth-century Italian art were, not surprisingly, more marginal—in both senses of the word—given that the great works of the Roman and Florentine Schools were scarce on the art market of the day. Here, there is a Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and other saints from the workshop of Andrea del Sarto while the Veneto School is represented by typical products of Bonifazio Veronese and Paris Bordone (Fig. 3). One surprising feature of the Saloon’s hang is a strong Immaculate Conception by Murillo (Fig. 4), which must have been a rarity in an English collection of that date since it was only after the Napoleonic Wars that Spanish painting became seriously collected. The French are represented by academic painters Charles Errard, Eustache Lesueur, and Charles Le Brun, for Walpole’s sense of fine painting was clearly guided by the myth of Louis XIV and his court.
The center of gravity of the collection is made clear by the state room adjacent to the Saloon, which is known as the Carlo Maratta Room (Fig. 5).
Its green velvet and richly gilt furnishings echo those of Italian galleries of the period, and the focal point is a striking portrait of one of the most cultivated Roman pontiffs, Pope Clement IX (fig. 6). Maratta held sway in Rome at the turn of the eighteenth century, and one of his many pupils was Bartolomeo Chiari, whose handiwork is also on view here. Chiari also trained William Kent; so, there was a direct connection with Walpole. Still, while talented, Maratta has never enjoyed the vogue he did in his own lifetime, and the hang presents what would have been considered the height of good taste around 1700.
Walpole had a great taste for Flemish painting, and approximately one quarter of all his collection came from that school. There are numerous works by genre masters like David Teniers and a few stronger ones by Rubens and Van Dyke.
The Common Parlour boasts a dense hang of Flemish paintings, among them, a sympathetic study of a Friar’s Head by Rubens (Fig. 7), a studio Head of a Girl, formerly thought to have been one of Rubens’s wives, and a vigorous portrait sketch of Inigo Jones (Fig. 8), the founding father of English Palladian architecture.
By far the most surprising work here is a small head and shoulders portrait of a man by Frans Hals, who was not normally represented in English collections at this date; the same could be said of the fine study for the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez nearby. Their presence here is thanks to a loan from the National Gallery in Washington, which acquired them, together with other purchases from Stalin by Andrew Mellon in the 1930s. Hals was mistakenly believed to have been the teacher of Sir Godfrey Kneller, one of the great portrait painters of Restoration England, who also figures here with a bravura portrait of Grinling Gibbons that hangs over the fireplace, framed by elaborate pear wood carvings attributed to Gibbons himself. Also in this room is one of the gems of Walpole’s collections, a Portrait of an Elderly Lady by Rembrandt (Fig. 9), normally in the Pushkin Museum of Moscow.
Van Dyck has always had a special resonance for English collectors as the official painter of Charles I and of the aristocracy of his court. The Marble Parlour or dining room gives the artist pride of place with two full-length portraits of Sir Thomas Wharton (Fig. 10) and the Earl of Danby, but here Kent’s décor contends for appreciation by the strategic use of marble on the walls facing the windows and the fireplace surmounted by Rysbrack’s relief of The Sacrifice to Bacchus (a preparatory drawing for it can be seen downstairs, on loan from the British Museum). The room is ingeniously designed so that the actual dining area is rather intimate; it is defined by the fireplace and flanking arcades while the area behind was given over to buffets and serving areas.
If visitors want a rest from paintings, they can withdraw to the Library, which is chiefly adorned by handsome, mahogany bookshelves. The only paintings here are of Sir Robert and a state portrait of George I by Kneller, in whose service his fortunes flourished. Among the other state rooms are a tapestry room with English tapestries from the Mortlake Factory in fantastic condition. They were conceived as fictive portraits of members of the Stuart dynasty, the majority being based upon portraits by Van Dyck. A bedchamber was de rigueur for palaces in this period, and the Embroidered Bedchamber contains a tour de force by William Kent in the form of an imposing bed with Sir Robert’s arms and Garter insignia embroidered in the canopy. This piece of furniture actually belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but it is on permanent loan to Houghton. The other “star” of this room is a magnificent, late Holy Family with Sts. John and Elizabeth by Poussin (Fig.11), for which Walpole paid £320, the highest price for a painting by Poussin at that time. The monumental scale of the figures calls to mind Picasso’s classicizing female figures of the 1920s, and it is, as Horace Walpole termed, “one of the most capital pictures in this collection”.
Houghton Revisited has been a well-deserved success, and in an age in which major museums often refuse loans, it is heartening to see such an example of international collaboration. It brings to life a great stately home at its peak of taste and luxury, and for a few, brief months, visitors can confirm the observation of Horace Walpole that “there are not a great many collections left in Italy more worth seeing than this at Houghton.”