Houghton Hall in Norfolk, southeast England, appears much the same as many other Georgian country estates: a place to feed the gun dogs and swaddle infants legitimate and otherwise. But Houghton, built in the 1720s for Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first de facto prime minister, has a surprising purpose: it was built for art.
“Walpole had homes all over London [including No 10 Downing Street], but he wanted a place where he could entertain and show off his fabulous collection,” says Lord Cholmondeley, current owner of the estate and direct descendant of Walpole.
A grand Palladian pile, Houghton was intended to be the permanent home for more than 400 of Walpole’s Old Master paintings, including works by Van Dyck, Poussin, Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez. Designed by James Gibbs and Colen Campbell, with interiors by William Kent, every inch of Houghton was conceived to best show off the statesman’s collection, so carved details and ornate murals were specifically made and coloured to accentuate certain paintings. The green vines painted on the ceiling of the Marble Parlour, for example, in a boozy testament to Bacchus, Roman god of wine, matched the greens in two Van Dyck pictures that once hung there.
Walpole might have been a tasteful curator but he wasn’t such a dab hand at managing the family assets. When he died in 1745, he left debts totalling £40,000 (about £6.6m in today’s money).
“Walpole lived rather high on the hog, you could say, and would spend vast sums of money on art and entertaining his political cronies, and then borrow more,” says Cholmondeley. “With Houghton, Walpole even burnt some of the bills he amassed on the place so no one would know how much he was spending.”
Neither were his children a frugal set, and with the passing of Houghton to Walpole’s grandson, George, the collection was sold to Catherine the Great to cover debts accrued through gambling and fast living. Cholmondeley adds that George once lost two of Houghton’s staircases in a bet.
Walpole’s paintings were sold in 1779 and installed in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where they have formed part of the Old Masters collection ever since. This summer, however, more than 70 of the paintings will return to Houghton as part of an exhibition called Houghton Revisited.
In 1734, just 15 miles away from Houghton in Wells-next-the-Sea, Thomas Coke, latterly Earl of Leicester, started to build a mansion for his own collection, Holkham Hall. The result, according to scholar Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, was the most “classically correct” house in England.
When he was still a teenager, Coke’s guardians sent him on a Grand Tour of Europe, then a rite of passage for young male aristocrats. When he returned six years later in 1718, he had developed a passion for Andrea Palladio and had collected about 50 Old Master paintings, so commissioned William Kent and architect Lord Burlington to build a Palladian country house in which to keep everything.
“Unfortunately, Coke lost about £70,000 in old money in the South Sea Bubble [about £9.7m today], which meant building couldn’t get started for about another decade,” says Viscount Coke, current owner of Holkham Hall. When the hall was finally finished in 1764, neither Coke, Kent nor Burlington was alive to see it complete with artworks all displayed.
Art clearly affected the design of Holkham’s statue gallery. The walls have recesses moulded to fit the 1st- and 2nd-century sculptures from Coke’s collection. In the Saloon, two paintings – a Procaccini and a Chiari – fit perfectly above two fireplaces, each picture a counterpoint to the other. Procaccini’s is the dark side, depicting the rape of Lucretia, and Chiari’s “Perseus and Andromeda”, where the Greek hero saves the girl from a sea monster, is the light. Though to us their pairing makes sense, this wasn’t always the case.
“The Victorians were a little concerned about nudity, so they removed the paintings because they had nude women in them and banished them to the towers,” says Viscount Coke. “My father [Edward, Earl of Leicester], in his 30-year tenure of running Holkham, started the process of returning all the paintings to their original hang.” Visitors can judge for themselves how well Coke’s vision was realised: Holkham is open to visitors from March to October.
Building properties to house art is not solely a Georgian pursuit, neither is it limited to the UK. In 1912, industrialist Henry Clay Frick started work on a New York residence with architect Thomas Hastings that would double as an extensive gallery. Today the low-lying Indiana limestone building, which covers the length of the block between East 70 and 71st streets on Fifth Avenue, is home to the Frick Collection. Frick always intended the house to be a public gallery after his and his wife’s death, but he never told Hastings the building would have such an ambitious second life.
“Frick didn’t want to crowd Hastings’ thoughts with any purpose other than it being a home,” says Colin B. Bailey, chief curator of the Frick Collection, “and I think that’s why, when Hastings returned his first set of plans, Frick rejected them because he knew it wouldn’t be suitable to be used as a public space later.”
According to Bailey, art further affected the building process following the death of banker and fellow collector JP Morgan in 1913. Through dealer Joseph Duveen, Frick acquired much of Morgan’s collection – including paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard that would form the basis of the room that bears his name on the ground floor. That room was finally completed in 1916, with Duveen returning the initial plans because the proposed chimney piece would not have been large enough to hold the bust and candelabras he had envisaged for it.
The mix of neoclassical, Baroque and Louis XVI-revivalist styles used in the architecture of Henry Clay Frick House is a clue to the artwork it contains – a mixture of paintings and sculpture, predominantly by European artists including Rembrandt, Vermeer, François Boucher and El Greco.
For a house designed around different artistic ideals, see fellow American Stanley Picker’s house in Kingston-upon-Thames, southwest London.
Picker collected works by Rodin, Lowry, Hepworth and Enzo Plazzotta, and, in 1966, he commissioned Kenneth Wood to build an angular, modernist house. Using lots of glass, aluminium and west African hardwood in his design, Wood created, according to the brief, an “imaginative home” with an informal gallery quality.
Today the house is much as it was when Picker died in 1982 and is open to the public, by appointment, on a few weekends every spring and summer.
If you’re looking at your own spartan surroundings and wondering where it all went wrong, then hope should not be abandoned just yet. In 2010, Italian artist Lithian Ricci, 55, redesigned her three-storey apartment in central Milan to better display her art collection. She decided to rip out all the interior walls and flooring and resize the windows to show off her pictures – some painted by herself and some by other contemporary artists.
“Now I live in a three-storey house, essentially with three rooms,” she says. “I put concrete on the middle floor, which I coloured beige, and then I painted the walls and the furniture all to go with the paintings.”
The most striking part of Ricci’s redesign is in the master bedroom, where a self-portrait of the artist on blood-red sands hangs on the newly built partition wall, itself coloured a complementary vibrant red.
The transformation took just under a year to complete. “I love the house now. There’s so much light all around, it’s like living in a boat in the centre of Milan,” she says.
And that is really what it comes down to: whether it is comfortable to live in a house built to display art. Lord Cholmondeley says it can be: “I think Houghton has an incredibly warm atmosphere. Some of the state rooms can be a little daunting, but I certainly loved coming here as a child when my grandparents owned the house. It’s a friendly place, I think, and the paintings are bit like old friends returning.”
‘Houghton Revisited’ will run from May 17 to September 29