The magnificent art collection of Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sold to Catherine the Great to adorn the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, is reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years this summer. Houghton Revisited runs until 24 November and is a unique opportunity to view one of the most famous art collections of eighteenth-century Europe. The display includes paintings from the English, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish schools, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Murillo.
Houghton Hall, now the family seat of Sir Robert Walpole’s direct descendant, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, is considered one of the country’s finest Palladian houses. The Hall was designed to house Walpole’s prized collection of Old Master paintings, and the magnificent interiors and furnishings designed by William Kent are also still intact. The paintings in the Houghton Revisited exhibition are hung as close as possible to their original positions in the State Rooms, bringing them back to the splendour of more than two centuries ago.
Inevitably, some of Van Dyck’s paintings were made into tapestries but this occurred posthumously. Well into the period of the Restoration, some of his royal portraits were turned into tapestries and form a set known as the Kings and Queens, which now hang in the dressing room at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the seat of Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first ‘Prime Minister’, and in the care of the Victoria and Albert Museum since 2002. They bear two sets of initials and the date 1672; those of Francis Poyntz, who held the post of Yeoman Arrasworker at the Great Wardrobe, and James Bridges. 66 The set is unique and bears the royal arms of Charles II. Finely woven, with much gold, and with very grand borders featuring putti and swags they are still in the great Mortlake tradition. The five royal portraits are all based on paintings in the Royal Collection and emphasise the Stuart dynasty. They include James I, Charles I’s father, after the painting by Paul van Somer, which was copied by Van Dyck. In the background is Windsor Castle and at either side are roundels of Prince Henry and Prince Charles. Anne of Denmark, Charles I’s mother, is after a painting by van Somer of 1617: she is dressed for hunting, with Oatlands in the background. Christian IV, Charles I’s uncle, with his distinctive pigtail, is based on a portrait by Karel van Mander the Younger.
Charles I’s portrait is derived from the “Greate Peece”. This has a vignette of Parliament House and Westminster Hall and the cluster of buildings comprising Whitehall but it is not a direct copy. Instead, it is adapted from the painting as Charles is standing rather than seated. The carpet and drapes are very prominent. It also features at the sides two roundels with portraits of the young sons, Charles and James, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, based on the painting by Van Dyck of Charles’s three eldest children. Finally, Henrietta Maria is modelled on Van Dyck’s painting of 1632, but is again adapted to a full-length.
Built in the 1720′s by Sir Robert Walpole, our de facto first Prime Minister, Houghton is one of England’s finest Palladian houses. To realise his dream for a truly magnificent house that would justly reflect his considerate power and status, Walpole employed the architects James Gibbs and Colen Campbell to draw up plans for the house whilst William Kent took charge of the interiors. No expense was spared and each room was lavishly decorated using the finest craftsmen of the time.
It was to become a place for political entertaining on a grand scale as well as family living. In 1797 the house passed to the 1st Marquis of Cholmondeley after the death of Horace Walpole, Sir Robert’s only surviving son and fourth and last Earl of Orford. It remains a family home to the present 7th Marquess and his wife and children. Despite long periods of neglect when the house was put up for sale, little has changed since Walpole’s time with much of the original furnituure and fabrics still in place as well as a considerate art collection.
All these years later Houghton still cannot fail to impress visitors. Each room has its own unique story and quality, whether it be the hand painted Great Staircase, Stone Hall, Marble Parlour, State bedrooms or red velvet Saloon.
For more interesting stuff about English Country House have a look at our blog on Eltham Palace.