In 1762, a young German princess deposed her incompetent husband Tsar Peter III, became Empress of Russia and set about making her adopted country part of Europe. Art was a principal weapon: voraciously, Catherine the Great bought up choice western collections, amassing 4,000 Old Masters. A fine group was British prime minister Robert Walpole’s paintings, which went to Russia in 1779 after the UK government declined to buy them for the nation. Walpole had assembled the works at his Houghton Hall home in Norfolk; they have now returned for the first time in more than two centuries in Houghton Revisited: Masterpieces from the Hermitage.
Most come from Catherine’s Hermitage, St Petersburg, but this show also unravels the 20th-century fates of Russian collections. In the 1930s a cash-strapped Soviet state sold highlights – Frans Hals’ “Portrait of a Young Man”, Velázquez’s gripping depiction of power, pomp and ugliness, “Pope Innocent X”, apparently commended by its subject as “troppo vero” (too true) – to Andrew Mellon; these visit from Washington. Other works were dispersed to achieve regional equality: Rembrandt’s arresting “Portrait of an Elderly Lady” is lent by Moscow.
The works are displayed at Houghton in their original positions. Monumental biblical and mythological compositions by Murillo, Luca Giordano, Charles Le Brun dominate the saloon. There is a dedicated Maratta room; portraits – Van Dyck, Rubens, Salvator Rosa, Jacob Jordaens – occupy the Marble Room and Common Parlour, and in the Embroidered Bed Chamber hangs Poussin’s “Holy Family” – one of numerous accounts of a subject which held special resonance for Walpole. This is a show of painstaking reconstruction, a window on an individual’s taste – overwhelmingly for portraiture and, unusually at the time, religious subjects – and on an expansive moment for British collecting.
Until September 29, www.houghtonrevisited.com