Exhibitions Museums United Kingdom

Back home to Houghton

Some of Sir Robert Walpole’s magnificent collection returns from the State Hermitage to his former home

Houghton Hall, Norfolk: the home for a while of works by Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez and more

The fifth of 17 children of a wealthy, but not rich, Norfolk landowner and MP Robert Walpole (1676-1745) would not, as a child and youth, have seemed destined for greatness. After Eton, he went up to Cambridge, but his studies were terminated when his father, following the deaths of Walpole’s elder brothers, recalled him to learn the business of being a country gent and heir to the estate at Houghton. On his father’s death in 1700, he took over his father’s seat for Castle Rising and, in 1702, became the Whig MP for King’s Lynn.

British politics changed dramatically with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The Tory ascendancy (the party of King and Church) gave way to the Whigs (the party of constitutional monarchist landowners). George I, seldom in England, speaking little English, concerned more with Hanover and the Reich, presented the Whigs with an opportunity to extend their sway as never before, the so-called Whig Supremacy that was to last until 1760.

Walpole’s moment had arrived. He was made First Lord of the Treasury in 1715 and by 1721 the King’s First ­Minister, the position that he expanded and consolidated in the absence of a king who relied almost entirely on Walpole’s advice and direction. Overseeing policy and directing the passage of ­legislation, creating a cabinet that was expected unanimously to endorse his leadership, and dispensing highly ­valuable patronage both secular and ecclesiastical, he effectively created what was later called the office of “prime minister”.

He also became very, very rich. The historian J.H. Plumb estimated that ­between 1714 and 1717 alone he put £100,000 (at least £18m in today’s money) in his pocket, and it did not stop there. In 1722 he had contracted Colen Campbell and William Kent to build a stately home next to the old house at Houghton. It was completed in record time in 1735.

His cupidity was criticised by contemporaries (as in John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera”, 1728) as well as subsequent historians (E.P. Thompson called him “a mafioso presiding over a banana republic”). But, as would befit a grandee, he also began to collect works of art on a large scale and installed them in his three town houses and at Houghton. By 1736 there were more than 60 paintings in Grosvenor Street, nearly 80 in his house in Chelsea, 150 in Downing Street and 113 paintings at Houghton. He retired from parliament in 1742, was created the First Earl of Orford and moved all his collections to Houghton. The collection included works by Raphael, Veronese, Van Dyck, Poussin, Rubens, Maratta, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Murillo, a host of Dutch and Flemish painters and many others.

After his death, his spendthrift heir, the Third Earl, sold—to the disgust and distress of his uncle, Horace Walpole, and the nation—204 of the best works to the Tsarina Catherine the Great for £40,555 (around £5.2m in today’s money, see box) in 1778-89. These she installed in the Hermitage where 126 remain (36 are missing; 15 are in Moscow, 21 in other Russian museums; six were sold to US museums in the 1920s and 30s).

Now, marking the 250th anniversary of Catherine’s accession, the State ­Hermitage is sending 60 paintings back for display at Houghton Hall, where they will be shown as they were ­originally in the Grand Rooms (the Saloon, the Maratta Room, the Embroidered Bed Chamber, the Cabinet Room and the two parlours).

The exhibition is an exercise in improving Russo-UK relations, and its sponsorship by BP celebrates the resolution last October of years of fraught relations with the Russian authorities over its TNK-BP partnership. Other sponsors include Christie’s and the Oracle Capital Group, which includes board members with a strong interest in Russia.

Houghton Revisited: Masterpieces from the Hermitage, Houghton Hall, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, 17 May-29 September

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