As my car sweeps through the Norfolk countryside on a sunny autumn morning, Houghton Hall beckons like Arcadia, with gates that open on to pristine parkland, with white fallow deer beneath ancient oak trees.
It is early November, and the handsome Palladian house is closed to the public for winter. Yet even in mid-summer Houghton receives at most 25,000 visitors a year, a fraction of the crowds who flock to Chatsworth and Blenheim Palace. Next year, however, that could change with the opening of Houghton Revisited, an exhibition of paintings including works by Rembrandt, Poussin and Velázquez, most of which come from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Houghton’s current incumbent, David, seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, regards the pictures as long-lost friends who have found their way home. Every one of them once graced Houghton as part of the collection of its original owner, Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first de facto prime minister.
There were more than 400 pictures in Walpole’s collection, including a host of masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman”, “Pope Innocent X” by Velázquez, and Poussin’s “Holy Family with St Elizabeth and John the Baptist”, which shows the artist at his most classically correct yet emotionally perceptive. In addition, there were paintings by Rubens, Van Dyke, Franz Hals and Neapolitan masters Luca Giordano and Salvator Rosa.
Thierry Morel, the curator of Houghton Revisited, says: “Most of the paintings either came from Italy or from top English collections, and were bought either by an agent or by his youngest son Horace.”
As Morel guides me through the state rooms where the exhibition will unfold, it is clear why he describes Houghton as “a temple built to house the collection”. The interiors were entrusted to William Kent, an architectural decorator who married classical motifs with baroque fancy. From the bronze reproduction of the “Borghese Gladiator” poised on a plinth in the stairwell to Brussels tapestries of mythological scenes so radiant they could be paintings, Walpole’s delight in the lavish and exquisite is revealed at every turn.
Yet a man so obsessed with quality was always in danger of overstretching his budget, and Walpole died in 1745 leaving debts of £40,000 (around £50m today). Paintings were not his costliest habit; his Belgian tapestries, for example, would have cost £1,500- £2,000 each, while he bought the most valuable canvas, the Poussin, for a record price of £600.
The estate’s fortunes were further depleted by Walpole’s grandson, Horace, the third Earl of Orford, whose compulsive gambling saw him lose the exterior staircases in a bet. In 1779, he decided to auction 204 of his grandfather’s paintings at Christie’s. When Catherine the Great of Russia heard of the sale she offered to buy them for £40,000 to furnish the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Their return is “something I have always imagined,” says Lord Cholmondeley when I catch up with him as he is about to depart on a trip to India. “Everything else [from Walpole’s time] is here: the furniture, the bronzes, the marble antiquities – the pictures were the missing ingredients.”
Even without them, Houghton is enchanting. From the outside, it is the embodiment of grey-stoned dignity, its classical lines given a baroque twist by cupolas topped with gilded weather vanes. Yet scattered within the vaulted entrance hall are the trappings of 21st-century domestic life: toys, wellies, a DVD of Homeland. A whippet squirms at our feet while the Cholmondeleys’ three-year-old twins laugh in a nearby room.
In his youth, Cholmondeley, now 52, made films under the name David Rocksavage and was based chiefly at the family castle in Cheshire. Since his marriage in 2009 to former model Rose Hanbury, however, he spends far more time at Houghton. “It’s very large but it really is home,” he says.
Walpole would surely approve. Described by his contemporary Lord Chesterfield as “good-natured, cheerful, social, inelegant in his manners, loose in his morals”, he was a brilliant if controversial politician, and a legendary bon vivant. Houghton was his dream house, a place to carouse, hunt and make love. Yet it was also somewhere to think, to strategise and to study the great minds of the day. To walk into Walpole’s library, surrounded by leatherbound volumes of Locke, Milton, and Racine, is to breathe the air of the Enlightenment.
The collection that departed for Russia in 1779 is, however, no longer complete. Some paintings were sold by Nicholas I; others by Stalin, including the Velázquez, which was purchased by Andrew Mellon before being donated to the National Gallery of Washington. The Rembrandt finished up in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. Several dozen have vanished entirely. Others were saved by Hermitage curators who bravely lied to Stalin, saying they were copies of poor quality or were missing.
Houghton, meanwhile, remained a time capsule of 18th-century splendour. Inherited by the Cholmondeley family in 1797, it was barely used in the 19th century. In 1919, Cholmondeley’s grandmother Sybil Sassoon, a renowned sophisticate, married the fifth marquess and set about restoring Houghton in earnest.
Like her grandson, she might be astonished that the Hermitage agreed to entrust the paintings to Houghton’s care. “We got the backing of [Hermitage director] Dr [Mikhail] Piotrovsky, which I never thought we would, especially being a private house [which doesn’t] get the biggest visitor numbers,” says Cholmondeley.
Much of the credit must go to Morel. An expert on private collections, he sits on the board of the US branch of the Hermitage Foundation, which promotes the museum abroad, and his knowledge and enthusiasm proved persuasive. Nevertheless, the practicalities are daunting. A government indemnity scheme will cover the insurance but round-the-clock security will be a burden for Houghton. The paintings will have to be hoisted through the windows of the double-height sculpture gallery, known as the Stone Hall, where they will remain for a 24-hour acclimatisation before hanging begins.
Most will return to their original positions. In the 1990s, Cholmondeley stumbled on a plan of Walpole’s original hang hidden in the politician’s desk, so visitors will be treated to a window on Walpole’s world. In a room known as the Common Parlour, for example, the statesman relaxed on crimson damask while gazing at the Rembrandt and the Velázquez.
Visiting dignitaries who slept in the tapestry-lined green velvet bed-chamber awoke to Poussin’s “Holy Family”. Guests feasting in the Bacchus-themed dining-room enjoyed the company of Henry Danvers, Earl of Derby, painted by Van Dyck and later saved by the Hermitage curators.
Remarkably, the Hermitage is even allowing Houghton to return the Poussin to its William Kent frame, an extremely ornate affair that now houses a mirror. Such an operation will require nerves of steel, I venture to Cholmondeley. He laughs. “Yes, and there’ll be more of that to come!”
‘Houghton Revisited’ runs from May to September 2013, www.houghtonrevisited.com