Houghton Hall: Return journey
Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, amassed the greatest art collection in 18th century Britain and built Houghton Hall to house it. Yet he also accrued such debt that after his death his art was sold to Catherine the Great, and sent to the Hermitage. Now this priceless collection returns to Houghton in a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, as Jenny Uglow explains.
If you can make only one trip this summer, it must be to Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Over a period of five months, Houghton will stage one of the most outstanding exhibitions ever seen in a British country house. Over 60 paintings from the great collection amassed in the mid-18th century by Sir Robert Walpole, and later bought by Catherine the Great of Russia, will return from St Petersburg to Houghton Hall. More than that, thanks to lists, inventories and even the recently discovered original hanging plans found neatly folded in a drawer in Walpole’s desk, most of the paintings will hang in the same positions that they occupied in the 1740s. The grandest will be back in the great gilded frames first designed for them by William Kent.
The present owner, Walpole’s descendant, the seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, is working with Thierry Morel, former Director of the London Friends of the Hermitage, to recreate the precise settings of Walpole’s day. In the White Drawing Room for example, once dedicated to the Roman painter Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), the Regency silk wall hangings will give way to the original green velvet, together with a miraculously preserved suite of chairs. To complete the ensemble, Maratta’s Judgement of Paris returns to Houghton after being painstakingly removed from the ceiling of Catherine the Great’s summer palace at Tsarskoye Selo outside St Petersburg.
In the late 1720s, Walpole – Britain’s first Prime Minister – was continually lampooned for his unscrupulous patronage and excessive pretensions. Jealous aristocrats were stunned by the building of Houghton Hall, his Palladian ‘palace’ in the countryside near King’s Lynn. Designed by Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, with interiors by Kent (who designed the interior of Burlington House), Houghton took seven years to build before it was finished in 1729.