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, has been reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years. Houghton Revisited runs from 17 May-29 September 2013 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.
Russian Art & Culture Editor Theodora Clarke spoke to curator Dr. Thierry Morel about the exhibition and how this extraordinary art collection from Norfolk ended up in the Hermitage Museum.
Theodora Clarke: How did the exhibition Houghton Revisited come about?
Thierry Morel: As director of the Hermitage Foundation UK in 2010, I wanted to find a project that would illustrate the strong historical link between the Hermitage Museum and England. The most important collection that Catherine acquired from England was that of Sir Robert Walpole and having been to Houghton, many years before, I knew that it was an exquisite place and still in its 18th century state. Furthermore, I knew that Houghton had been built for the collection. I thought then why not reunite this wonderful house with its original paintings.
TC: Is this exhibition then the first time that the pictures have returned to Houghton Hall?
TM: It’s the first time that they have all come back to their original home. A few paintings were exhibited before but it’s the first time that so many of them have returned to their original setting.
TC: Could you tell us more about Sir Robert Walpole as a collector. He is well known as Britain’s first Prime Minister. How important was he as a patron of the arts in the Britain?
TM: Sir Robert wasn’t just an important statesman. He had very distinctive tastes and was particularly involved in and passionate about his art collecting. Although he never set foot in France or Italy he had a network of agents employed to buy the best works of art that were available there. He always made the final decision on a purchase. From France he asked his eldest son to purchase the Laocoön by François Girardon and asked him and his siblings to bring him some ancient sculptures – these were busts of Emperors in marble as well as porphyry urns and alabasters vases from Italy. He not only collected the great masters, such as Velazquez, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck, but he also commissioned contemporary works of art too.
TC: What would you say are the standout works in the exhibition?
TM: I would say the Murillo Immaculate Conception and the Prodigal Son by Salvador Rosa as well as the Portrait of Pope Clement IX by Carlo Maratta. In total there are over 80 paintings, 20 drawings, and many important pieces of silver and furniture.The majority of the works have been lent by the Hermitage but we also have loans from many other sources including the Pushkin Museum, the palaces of Pavlovsk, Tsarskoye Selo, the National Gallery in Washington, The Metropolitan Museum the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and, of course, some private collections. Many works were sold in 1928 by the Soviets to various art collectors around the world. That’s how for instance some of the pictures ended up in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
TC: So how did this famous collection from a British stately home in Norfolk end up in St Petersburg with Catherine the Great?
TM: Catherine the Great had an Ambassador in London and he heard the rumour that this collection might come up for sale. It was sold not by Sir Robert himself but by his grandson. The Ambassador described to her the collection’s worth; it was one of the finest on the market in those years. Walpole himself had actually bought these pictures from many fine collections in England and Europe. She decided to ask the Ambassador to purchase the collection for her Hermitage.
TC: Catherine bought a huge number of art collections and other archives like Diderot’s library. Do you think the purchasing of the Walpole collection was also a political move? Or was she just interested in those particular artists?
TM: She knew all of the artists featured in the collection. Besides being a political move, it was a matter of pride to buy the personal collection of the first Prime Minister of England. Primarily she was buying a major collection of art although this aspect did amplify her desire to purchase it.
TC: I understand that Houghton was specifically built to house all of these artworks. Why did the Walpole family then sell the collection?
TM: Sir Robert created a temple for his collection by building Houghton Hall on various sites of his family estate. In a sense you can say he built two things – the collection and the house. That’s why it is so special to see the works back at Houghton because the building was constructed with the knowledge of the collection. William Kent, one of the architects, had previously designed some of the interiors of Downing Street where Walpole resided. Therefore he knew the pictures that Sir Robert had acquired. I establish in the exhibition that he also had a key role in helping Sir Robert identify some works to purchase. You can see when you come to Houghton that the interiors were designed specifically with the works of art in mind – the rooms were literally made around the tapestries and the paintings.
TC: Are the works in the exhibition hung as they would have been during Walpole’s time?
TM: Quite a few of the pictures are hung exactly where they were. We know that because we have room by room descriptions, inventories and original drawings. Whenever possible we positioned the pictures where they were originally. Sometimes, if there is a gap, where one or two are missing, then you do have to rearrange the wall but it is always in the spirit of the original hang.
TC: This exhibition is quite unusual in that the venue, Houghton Hall, is still used as a family home.
TM: Yes, it’s a private house and still owned by Lord Cholmondeley and his family the direct descendants of Sir Robert.
TC: How are these pictures usually displayed in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia? Are they hung together?
TM: That’s an interesting question because the works at the Hermitage are hung by schools: the French, Spanish, and Italian etc. This is a very common way of arranging pictures in museums. What’s interesting and intriguing in this exhibition is that the works here are arranged in a different way. Originally they were arranged either by the typology of works, near related works or because they were from specific collections that the owner Sir Robert bought. Seeing the Walpole picture in their original rooms brings another meaning to them and in particular, their connections and relationships to each other. For instance, Sir Robert would create a room dedicated to Carlo Maratta an artist who was fashionable and important in 18th Century Rome. It is now the only room in the world dedicated to this artist and his followers and pupils.
TC: How did you find it working with the State Hermitage Museum in terms of lending work to the UK?
TM: I have to say that the Hermitage was exemplary in trying to make the exhibition happen. This is generally true of all the Russian Museums we borrowed works from. From the beginning I collaborated with them – the directors and curators – and they assisted in any way they could. It’s been a very positive experience. You have to remember also that this is the first time ever that a Russian Museum is lending so many priceless artworks to a private house. They have been incredibly generous.
TC: Why do you think that Houghton is so important in terms of British history and architecture?
TM: Many architectural historians and architecture lovers, including the Prince of Wales, consider this one of the finest houses in the country. It is exceptional because three major architects deployed their ingenuity and talent to create something which is so successful. A lot of thought went into the building itself. It’s very clear when you visit that the materials and techniques are completely novel. In many ways, it was at the forefront of eighteenth-century architecture. The marble parlour or the dining room at Houghton is the first purpose -built dining room in the country. There was also a purpose built picture gallery, later destroyed by fire, and top lit which was remarkably ingenious. Never in any other house had so much mahogany been used. There isn’t a space in the house which wasn’t designed to receive or to adorn or complement a work of art, be it sculpture or paintings, tapestries of furniture. Even the frames were designed by the architect Kent.
TC: Do you have any particular favourite rooms or works in the exhibition?
TM: The Poussin for me is the best work in the exhibition and in terms of rooms I think the saloon is incredibly dramatic. What really is a joy is that all those works look as if they belong in the space. You feel these pictures have always been here. It’s a unique installation – in many rooms it’s hard to tell that the paintings have just been brought over for the exhibition. The exhibition runs until the end of September and it will not happen again, it’s a once in a lifetime experience!
Houghton Hall & The Hermitage
An historic re-creation
May – September 2013
©Interview copyright of Russian Art & Culture Ltd.
All Images courtesy of Houghton Hall