Houghton Revisited showcases art collection of Britain’s first prime minister

70 paintings return to their English country home

From Russia, 234 years later

John Bodkin

The bucolic Norfolk countryside is home to spectacular estates of royalty and nobility alike, as well as a blockbuster art exhibit two centuries in the making. Houghton Revisited packs Old Masters on top of each other, behind gilt armchairs and next to beds in the stately house of the 7th marquess of Cholmondeley. Instead of being hung in sterile galleries of a big-city museum, these pictures have come home.

Houghton Hall was built to showcase the legendary art collection assembled by Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole. “It’s not just a rich man buying big names,” curator Thierry Morel explains. “It’s a real connoisseur putting together a personal collection with his intuition and his taste.” The sumptuous interiors and baroque furniture, most created by William Kent, were meant to form the ideal backdrop for Walpole’s art treasures. Unfortunately, he had only three years there before dying in 1745, heavily in debt. Thirty-four years later, his wastrel grandson shocked the nation by selling the cream of the collection to Russia’s Catherine the Great, who could not hide her glee at getting “her claws into them” for the Hermitage museum.

Now 70 of those paintings are back, hanging in the very positions where Walpole originally placed them. Three years ago, Morel approached Houghton’s aristocratic owner with the thought of recreating Walpole’s famous saloon. Soon the curator realized that, to attract crowds to an estate a 90-minute train ride north of London, he’d have to ask for far more pictures to hang in even more rooms. Everyone said yes, including the Hermitage, which had never loaned works to a private house. This spring, as Morel hung the pictures, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, Teniers, Frans Hals and Velázquez, he marvelled at the harmony created. “Those pictures were meant to be together, they gel. There is a feeling of completeness,” he says.

That feeling was only possible because Houghton’s 18th-century interior remains intact. Walpole’s descendants didn’t share his love for the place; it was left empty for long periods, its contents carefully stored away. A century ago, the current owner’s grandmother, heiress Sybil Sassoon, brought Houghton back to life. So now, visitors can see it as Walpole intended: the dining room, for instance, with its Van Dycks and Veronese chosen to complement the marble walls and gilt chairs surrounding a mahogany table laden with Sèvre china. This is also why, after a hunt through Houghton’s existing art collection, impressive in its own right, Morel was able to reunite a Poussin from the Hermitage with its original Kent frame.

That country-house atmosphere also presents problems, especially complaints that the rooms are too dim. “The whole point is not to show masterpieces on white walls with spotlights, but to show how they were in the 18th century,” Morel explains. Still, he isn’t going overboard for authenticity’s sake. He’s increased the lighting on the paintings alone.

That the exhibition sells out most days bodes well for Houghton’s future, for while the Cholmondeley family is worth $100 million and their other home is a castle, estates like Houghton are notorious for draining fortunes. Indeed, its two state beds were given to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2002 to help pay off inheritance taxes, though they remain at the mansion. Today, many historic estates are open to the public, hosting weddings, film shoots and other money-making endeavours. And though taxi driver Ian Carson’s business is up significantly as he ferries tourists between the local train station and Houghton, he’s noticed that visitors are spending their time and money on the estate.

Surrounding the Palladian mansion, a work of art itself, is a 160-hectare park, home to a collection of contemporary sculptures, a nearby walled garden and the 6th marquess’s collection of model soldiers in the old stable block. And, of course, the money-making café and shops. As both Robert Walpole and his grandson had reason to note, high art has high costs.