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PM splashes the cash

16 August 2013

Nicholas Cranfield on Walpole's paintings where he hung them


Home from home: a view of the installation in the saloon at Houghton Hall

Home from home: a view of the installation in the saloon at Houghton Hall

SIR ROBERT WALPOLE was the first oligarch and racketeer to become Prime Minister, or the "Senatus Britannici Princeps", as it is inscribed on John Michael Rysbrack's bust of him, on the overmantel in the Stone Hall at the heart of Houghton Hall.

He was born in 1676; after Eton, King's, Cambridge, and marriage, he succeeded his father in 1700 as MP for Castle Rising in Norfolk. The following year, he became MP for King's Lynn, the seat that he retained throughout his parliamentary career. In 1720, he amassed a fortune from the South Sea Company, a joint-stock company trading in slaves, selling out ahead of the collapse that bankrupted three other ministers of the Crown.

He was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1721, and at 50 was invested with the Order of the Garter. By then, he increasingly spent time with Maria Skerrett, whom he later married after the death of his first wife. Long before he retired to Norfolk in 1742, as 1st Earl of Orford, he was lampooned on stage as Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and in print in obscene political cartoons.

He had rebuilt his family home, Houghton, on the proceeds of the South Sea Company. George I had controversially appointed a young and relatively unknown painter, William Kent, to undertake the interior furnishing of Kensington Palace in 1722, as opposed to the more widely regarded Sir James Thornhill.

Where his King led, Walpole followed; Kent's interior designs for his new home, built by Colen Campbell, are dated 1725, and building work continued at least to 1735. In his London houses, including 10 Downing Street, Walpole owned more than 400 paintings, which he had begun collecting in the reign of Queen Anne. Moving them to his Palladian house in Norfolk also necessitated a new gallery.

Walpole once reckoned that he had spent in excess of £200,000 building and furnishing Houghton. At his death in 1745, his heirs inherited his debts; pictures were sold off piecemeal, and many are still in and around London in private collections, mostly untraced.

Thirty years later, the mad 3rd Earl invited James Christie, the founder of a London auction house, to handle the rest of the pictures, except the family portraits, and 182 were sold off to the Empress of Russia in the summer of 1779 for £40,555. A further 22 were added as part of a job lot. Recently, a religious painting by Andrea del Sarto has turned up in the attic at Houghton, where it was overlooked by the shippers; it is now proudly back in the saloon.

Of the 204 paintings, the whereabouts of all but three dozen is known to this day, 126 of them still in the Hermitage. The cash-strapped Soviets sold off some in the 1930s; the Americans picked up van Dyck's Philip Wharton, Velázquez's Pope Innocent X, and a portrait by Hals for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Calouste Gulbenkian bought up the portrait of Hélène Fourment by Rubens, of which a poor photographic reproduction is displayed in the Cabinet Room at Houghton, beside its original Kent frame, which, since the sale, has had a fine pier-glass mirror to replace the lost treasure.

A further three dozen paintings had been distributed to museums across Russia and the Ukraine, including 15 sent to Moscow. Others were among those lost during the German occupation of various former imperial palaces.

It was another oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, allegedly the 18th wealthiest man in the world, who brought 34 masterpieces of Walpole's original collection to the short-lived Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House (Arts, 18 October 2002). In contrast with Walpole, his enforced retirement from the disgraced Yukos oil company has bought him a spell in Matrosskaya Tishina, where he is serving a prison sentence to 2017. Before being charged, he had offloaded his oil shares on Jacob Rothschild.

Vladimir Putin, who takes an observably close interest in everything that happens in his home town, has allowed the extraordinary return of 55 of the paintings that were sold to Catherine the Great. Most of them come from the Hermitage, but others have been brought in from Perm - the Apollo and Daphne, by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari (c.1710), which was one of a series of four paintings, two of scenes from Ovid, and two religious pendants - Moscow (the State Pushkin Museum), Pavlovsk (Ponzone's Holy Family of 1637), and Tsarskoye Selo.

From the United States, the curators have been able to bring back the Velázquez pope and the Hals portrait, while two Lely portraits have come from Newport, Rhode Island. Inevitably, there are gaps. I much regretted the absence of Van Dyck's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, purchased in 1733, and another New Testament picture (Rubens: Supper in the House of Simon the Pharisee), which are deemed too fragile to be transported. Van Dyck's second portrayal of Archbishop William Laud (the other is in Cambridge) is also among those that have not been returned.

Thierry Morel has seized the unique opportunity to place 17 in their exact locations, and 27 in the rooms where they had first been assembled when they came up from London. Kent's penned elevations and a drawing found in 1980 in a secret drawer of Walpole's desk, still in the library, have allowed this recreation.

These drawings, a catalogue description of the contents of Houghton in 1747 drawn up by Sir Robert's nephew, the celebrated owner of Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole, and the engravings after individual pictures undertaken by Boydell in the 1770s, which are still on the walls of the back stairs, inform the current hang.

At the time, John Lord Hervey commented of Houghton that the lower storey was dedicated to "hunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business". Entering from the garden front, visitors today may think this a little harsh, but it is here, in a former pantry, that portraits of the expansive Walpole and his mistress and later second wife Maria Skerrett (Polly Peacham) have been relegated temporarily.

Upstairs, on the piano nobile as Hervey called it, their accustomed place has been taken by many of the great works of art loaned to this remarkable exhibition.

"Taste, expense, state and parade' (Hervey) ruled here. Room after room reveals the wealth that had once decorated Walpole's country retreat underneath the heavy coffered ceilings and the painted and gilded surfaces of William Kent. For the historian of culture, this is a rare chance to see an 18th-century collection as it was assembled at the time, and to understand the aesthetic of the period.

The sell-off to Russia was thought underhand at the time when the nation still had no permanent collection of its own. There was real outrage that a former Prime minister had been able to amass such wealth. Its return is a real chance to see just how an 18th- century cultured man chose to display his wealth.

Walpole's 16-foot dining table in the marble parlour is now surrounded by precisely the same pictures as dominated conversation in the 1730s and 1740s. Above the doors from the library are two works of still life by Michelangelo del Campidoglio (c.1625-69), while the other over-doors are scenes of the Ascension, by Alviso Benefatto del Friso (after 1576), and Paolo Veronese (c.1580), the latter loaned from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. In 1733, the Apostles would have overseen the consumption of 522 dozen cases of clarets from Lafite and Margaux.

At either end, two of Van Dyck's most important full-length portraits from the later 1630s are reunited. Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby, with his distinctive black silk patch on his left cheek where he had been wounded in active service, is the only full-length depiction by Van Dyck of a Knight of the Garter. It is a superb study of the 60-year-old, who founded the first botanical garden in England (at Oxford), and who had been an early patron of Rubens. It was valued at £200 in 1778.

Opposite stands Sir Thomas Wharton KB, outlandishly dressed in red trousers. At the time of the sale, it was reckoned to be a studio copy. It lacks something of the warmth of Van Dyck's handling in other works here, especially the Inigo Jones and Sir Thomas Chaloner, both back in the common parlour; but it, too, made £200.

Beneath the 1646 Kitchen (David Teniers II) are paired the benign portrait head of the Pamphilij pope, painted around 1650 by Velázquez, for which Walpole paid 11 guineas in 1725/26, and the Head of a Franciscan Monk by Rubens, dating to 1617/19. So well matched are the two, turning towards one another, that it is a shock to find from Lord Cholmondeley's discovered drawing for the design of the common parlour that these had not previously been hung together.

The painting of the kitchen was recorded in the parlour of 10 Downing Street in 1736. It shows a vast kitchen, much larger than Houghton's, and most likely to be that of the Statholder of Holland, with a cook leading a blind man up some steps towards a falconer. The blind man trails a fish, suggesting that this might also represent the story of Tobit, while the presence of skate among the fish being prepared clearly indicates that the contemporary fishing trade was not being interrupted by war or by any blockade of Dutch ports.

Rather more poignant is the first picture that visitors get to see. Over the door into the common parlour is Alonso Cano's The Death of St Joseph, which Walpole mistakenly thought to be by Velázquez. Charlene Villaseñor Black has alerted us to the emergence of the cult of St Joseph in her study of art and gender of the Spanish empire (2006). This is an exceptional example (one that she does not discuss) of the way in which Joseph's quotidian life, and death, was intended to reinforce the part played by men in the century after the conquest of America.

An elderly patriarchal figure resting on his pillow turns towards Jesus, his weary eyes searching into the soul of the Saviour, who is about to bless him. At his other shoulder, a tired Mary weeps silently and unseen. The composition of the picture appears compellingly realistic to anybody who has stood at the deathbed of his or her father, conveying as it does the anxiety and yet sudden release when words cease and a "good death" follows.

Other Spanish paintings include Murillo's The Flight into Egypt (Pushkin, Moscow), which was thought to be a pair with his Crucifixion, also thought to date from the last years of the artist's life in Seville. The size of both makes the virtual pair the visual triumph of the Carlo Maratta room, hanging either side of the fireplace, above which is Maratta's undoubted masterpiece, his 1669 portrait of Pope Clement IX. His great picture The Immaculate Conception, still in the frame that William Kent designed for it, has returned to the saloon where it was in Walpole's lifetime. Next to it, Salvator Rosa's Prodigal Son, which cost Walpole £500, affords visitors a second way to reflect on sinfulness as they leave the exhibition.

"Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great's Hermitage" runs until 24 November (extended from 29 September owing to demand) at Houghton Hall, Houghton, near King's Lynn, Norfolk PE31 6UE. Phone 01485 528 569. To book tickets, phone 01603 598 640.


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