Masterpieces by Rembrandt, Poussin and Velazquez are among a collection of over 40 works from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg which will travel to Britain for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at one of this country’s finest historic houses, Houghton in Norfolk. The exhibition, HOUGHTON REVISITED: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage will go on show from 17 May to September 2013.
The collection was originally brought together by Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole (1676-1745), and sold to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, in 1779. The paintings have not been seen in Britain for over 200 years, and they will be shown in the exhibition in their original settings at Houghton, the Walpole ancestral home in Norfolk.
One of the most famous art collections of eighteenth-century Europe, the exhibition will include masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Murillo and many others. The exhibition includes over 60 works from the Hermitage and other Russian museum as well as loans from the National Gallery, Washington and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Also on show will be the Walpole Silver and works on paper.
Houghton Hall is now the family seat of Sir Robert Walpole’s direct descendent, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley. It was designed by the most gifted architects of the day, Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, to house Walpole’s prized collection of Old Master paintings. The magnificent interiors and furnishings designed by William Kent are still intact; the exhibition will reproduce the original hang of the Grand Rooms,bringing them back to the splendour of two centuries before.
In its scale and ambition, the exhibition will be a fitting celebration both of 250th anniversary of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne, and the long and distinguished history of Anglo-Russian cultural relations. This will be a unique opportunity to revisit a moment in British history of supreme diplomacy, shrewd dealership, lavishspending and exceptional collecting. The exhibition is a celebration both of the history of Houghton, and of the key role of this English collection in the initiation of the State Hermitage Museum.
Lord Cholmondely said: “It is a thrilling prospect to have the Walpole paintings back in their original positions at Houghton, thus recreating the interiors of State Rooms in their entirety; an idea that would have delighted past generations of my family. Our grateful thanks are due to the State Hermitage and other museums for agreeing to lend their masterpieces – perhaps the first time they have done so to a private house. We look forward to welcoming you to Houghton.”
The collection of Sir Robert Walpole perfectly reflected an early 18t-century English collector’s taste. At its core were works by Dutch and especially Flemish painters. However, it also represented well the French and Italian schools of painting. The most remarkable paintings were by Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Frans Snyders, Guido Reni, Carlo Maratti and Salvator Rosa. Alongside these were great works by such artists as Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain and a painting by Bartolome Murillo in its original frame designed by William Kent for Houghton Hall.
Arrival of the Walpole collection in St Petersburg in 1779 was an important event in the Hermitage history. Sir Robert Walpole’s paintings greatly expanded the Imperial collection, adding to it a few works by English masters, such as Portrait of Abraham van der Dort and Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller and Dogs by John Wootton.
Abraham’s Sacrifice by Rembrandt (1606-1669), acquired by Walpole in 1736, is one of the most famous works in the Hermitage. It was an extraordinary privilege for the Hermitage Rooms to have been allowed to show this masterpiece, which rarely leaves Russia.
Sir Robert Walpole’s son Horace in his catalogue of his father’s collection (1747) describes Nicolas Poussin’s The Holy Family with Saints Elisabeth and John the Baptist as “one of the most Capital Pictures in this collection”. Italian Baroque pictures were much in vogue in the 18th century, as showed by The Fathers of the Church Disputing the Christian Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Guido Reni (1575-1642).
Sir Robert Walpole also acquired pictures by artists who played a central role in the visual arts in Britain and the temporary return of some of these works to London was a welcome event. Like his contemporaries, Walpole admired the portraiture of Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Of special interest in the exhibit were his portrait of Inigo Jones, the renowned British architect who worked at old Somerset House; the portrait of Sir Thomas Chaloner, one of the judges who sentenced Charles I to be executed; and the double portrait of the children Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton painted in 1640 for their father, Lord Wharton, one of Van Dyck’s most admiring patrons. Catherine II’s purchases also included the portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1649-1723) of the great woodcarver and sculptor Grinling Gibbons, who had worked at Houghton Hall.
The inherited debts of Robert Walpole’s grandson, George Walpole, the 3rd Earl of Orford, were the main cause of the sale of such a large number of paintings from his collection to Empress Catherine the Great. The final price she paid for the 204 works was 40,555 pounds sterling and she despatched a ship to England to transport the paintings to Russia in the autumn of 1779. The Russian art historian Vladimir Loewinson-Lessing, author of a distinguished history of the Hermitage, described the acquisition of Lord Walpole’s gallery as “one of the greatest events in the life of the Hermitage”. Six of the Walpole paintings were sold abroad in the 1930s but 126 are still in the Hermitage, a further 15 in Moscow and 21 more in various museums around Russia and the Ukraine. The fate of 36 is still unknown, 6 of them having disappeared during the German occupation of former Imperial palaces during the Second World War. Portrait of George I by G. Kneller which disappeared during the War from the St Petersburg suburban residence Gatchina was restored to Russia by the German government in June 2002.
Although Walpole’s picture collection was acquired by Empress Catherine II, his antique and Renaissance sculpture, splendid furniture and other furnishings for Houghton Hall were not sold and remain in the house for which they were bought or commissioned. The Marquess of Cholmondeley, Sir Walpole’s direct descendant and the present owner of Houghton Hall, had generously lent a distinguished group of furniture and sculpture together with a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole by his favourite artist John Wootton (1682-1764) so that the visitors could appreciate Sir Walpole’s vision for the interior of the house.
The exhibition, HOUGHTON REVISITED: The Walpole Masterpiecesfrom Catherine the Great’s Hermitage will go on show from 17 May to September 2013.
The exhibition had offered the public a splendid opportunity to see this legendary British collection temporarily returned to the collector’s country.
HOUGHTON REVISITED: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage
Dates: 17 May – September 2013