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I have just been in awe and wonder to visit Cock Robin at home. He certainly lined his nest, but not with bits of fluff and dead leaves. Up in Norfolk, at Houghton Hall, Cock Robin was the nickname of Robert Walpole, the first, or “prime”, minister who dominated English Georgian politics for more than 20 years between 1721 and 1742. Familiar themes sounded all around him, bills to limit the number of peers in the Lords, national debt, venal politicians and a growing belief, dramatised in political cartoons, that the best way to a post of influence was to kiss, literally, the Great Man’s arse.
Until this summer we have never been able to visualise Cock Robin in his own home setting. I blush to confess it, but I had thought his house to be an abandoned shell. In fact, as this section highlighted earlier this year, it is one of the wonders of England, designed by the best architects at the best of all early Georgian moments. Until November, as if by a fairy godmother, it has been given back the paintings which Walpole collected but which were bought in bulk and taken away to Russia in 1779. I have never been more fascinated by an exhibition of taste and art in context. It is an unmissable triumph.
Three years ago I was in at the beginning of this improbable story. Near the end of his life even Walpole was heavily in debt. His son and subsequent family compounded the problem and so the Houghton picture collection had to be sold. In Russia Catherine the Great was known to Walpole’s relations as “the Ursa Major of the North”, but the she-bear had the wits to claw in his entire collection at auction. She displayed it in her Hermitage in St Petersburg. The Hermitage then became a state museum but, wondrously, most of Walpole’s pictures survived.
In 2010 I was invited to Amsterdam when the Hermitage opened its display of superb items linked to Alexander the Great. As a finale I shared a champagne lunch on an Amsterdam canal boat with Thierry Morel, then the director of the Hermitage Foundation UK. As we floated past the Herengracht, I asked him what would be the exhibition of his dreams. “To bring Walpole’s paintings back to Houghton and show them where they once hung,” he replied. “Dream on, Thierry,” I thought, “it must be the champagne.”
Now, brilliantly, he has curated exactly what he dreamt. It is a stunning exercise in sponsorship, led by BP, and in cultural diplomacy between two countries. Houghton’s present owner, Lord Cholmondeley, even found a neglected document in a drawer of Walpole’s library desk which explains where the pictures had been hung in the 1740s. Walpole’s enemies referred to his reign as the Robinocracy. Am I a Robinocrat or a democrat, I wondered, as I advanced on his classical mansion, following double avenues of formally-planted trees and leaving a walled ditch, or ha-ha, behind me to keep the vast park’s livestock at bay?
The Robinocracy was a reference to supposed robbing and pillage, not “Robin’s” enlightened guidance. There were certainly holes in the accounts. Walpole was paid about £9,000 a year as the first minister of King George. The housekeeping at Houghton cost about £1,500 a week. After one bout of entertaining, Walpole’s wine merchant in London took back some 500 dozen empty bottles of Château Lafite and Château Margaux. By 1741 the household was said to be able to make up 110 beds at only an hour’s warning. Houghton had one of England’s first dining rooms. It was wondrously decorated with marble carved imagery of revelling Bacchus. Walpole managed a coalition in the Commons for 20 years. He did not survive simply by telling backbenchers that he felt their pain.
My heroine of his age, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, alleges, in a glorious letter, that one item of business before Houghton’s summer guests was a proposal to have the word “not” removed from the Ten Commandments and “clapped into the Creed” instead. According to her, it failed, but only when an elderly country MP remarked that he was afraid of men’s intractable obstinacy. As things were, they paid no attention to the Creed or the Commandments, but if the word “not” was switched between them, might they not defy it by ceasing to enjoy adultery and actually believing what the Creed said?
The Chipping Norton set and its gossip are tame by comparison. The “Houghton set” would never have been satisfied with a chipolata sausage or two from Rebekah Brooks at a Boxing day meet of their local hounds.
Walpole is described in the satirical Beggars Opera as “Bob Booty”. Historians have found it hard to pin down bribes in actual cash between Walpole and his MPs. It is easier, then too, to pin down the MPs’ own scandals. Here is a topical one. In the 1730s the business of the Charitable Corporation was to lend money to the poor, expressly so as to save them from having to borrow at “payday” rates of interest. The government, encouraged by Walpole, injected ever more capital into the Corporation but not before one of its ministers, Robert Sutton, had issued himself ever more saleable shares in the Corporation at no expense.
My history books describe Walpole as a “coarse” man, an avowed Norfolk farm owner. The authors have plainly never engaged with Houghton. Admittedly, Walpole sometimes chewed an apple as he spoke in the House of Commons. He liked dirty jokes. I like him for claiming to read letters from his gamekeepers before he ever read letters from his ministers. I also like him for loving hunting. He kept two packs of hounds, letting them hunt six days a week.
Yes, he was an Etonian but hunting Etonians are not all philistines. The ground floor of Houghton was said to be “foxhunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business”, but the first floor was another matter. The library, next to his bedroom, befitted his classical learning. For 20 years Walpole scoured the art dealers of Europe and picked the paintings which he wanted his sons and agents to buy. Some of them were hung in one of his London houses, Number 10 Downing Street, no less. Eventually they were amalgamated on the walls at Houghton. Fascinatingly, we can see this year what artists he competed to buy and how he had their paintings arranged. The highly priced Carlo Maratta has turned out to be second rate. Not so Murillo or a remarkable painting by Salvator Rosa of the Prodigal Son, scruffily dressed but lit by a heavenly light.
Above all, in Houghton’s huge interior Walpole gave the wit of William Kent free rein. Kent is one of the men I would love to invite for long weekends: so witty, charming and wondrously inventive. He was “a painter, an architect and the father of modern gardening”, Walpole’s relations remarked, “and in the first, he was below mediocrity”. As a landscape gardener “Kent-ino” excelled, the man in the 1720s “who first leaped the fence and saw all nature is a garden”. As even his critics admitted, “Mahomet imagined an Elysium, but Kent created many”.
I turned my back wistfully on fine tapestries of the goddess Venus with her lovers and looked out from Houghton’s first-floor windows. The park beyond is a riposte to Walpole’s “vulgarity”. His letters show he was keen to design it. Across 20 years, it changed with the fashion in landscape gardening, from formal avenues, radiating outwards, to a more “natural” use of lakes and curves. Kent is not attested as the park’s landscaper. Walpole probably employed another genius, the great Bridgeman, who masterminded the park at Stowe.
Briefly, Cock Robin has many of his pictures back on his walls. Beyond them remains a landscape which is a tribute to his taste. Despite the tabloid press of the day, Robinocracy was not all about sleaze.