Houghton Revisited : Masterpieces from the Hermitage


From the Report -by John Boldero- in the Winter 2013 – 2014 Newsletter :

“For quite a few of us, this was Norfolk Revisited, for 11 years after the very successful visit of the Society to the county in 2002,  a group of some 45 ANS members gathered at Houghton Hall, near Norwich, to view a truly ‘once in several lifetimes’ exhibition.

The events leading up to it are as fascinating as its subject matter. Many of the pictures in the magnificent art collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, which were sold to Catherine the Great in 1779 to pay his debts, were re-assembled in the original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time since the sale. What made the event even more resonant for the modern visitor is that Houghton Hall itself has undergone very little development or change in the intervening period and so mirrors the appearance of the place at the time of the artistic diaspora remarkably closely. This has meant that, in some cases, where paintings were displayed in carved wall mountings, the pictures could be readily re-positioned in their settings after an absence of some 230 years.

The original sale consisted of 204 paintings. Amazingly, despite  the collection being moved to shelters in the Urals to escape damage in the Second World War and Stalin selling off art treasures in the 1950’s to raise dollars, 74  paintings made the journey from St. Petersburg, with  two coming from the US; some 34 are still missing. We were fortunate to be given an excellent review of the composition of the collection by John Laycock, an Art History scholar, who observed that the selection of the paintings by Ambassador Pushkin was more on the basis of overall talent and theme rather than as depictions of the great and the good of contemporary Britain, who would of course hold little interest for Russian viewers. Thus the Ambassador selected a striking picture of one of Rembrandt`s older female models, with especially skilful treatment of her hands, while one of the van Dyck portraits depicts a particularly private, insightful face, rather than the usual ‘promotional’ poses found elsewhere.

Possibly because of their predilection for genre subjects, in keeping with the theme of many of the acquisitions, Netherlandish artists were well-represented in the exhibition, with works by Rubens, Hals, Teniers, Jordaens, van Huysum and Griffier, in addition to the above-mentioned artists. Among others on show, there are interesting indications of how taste and preference have moved against some artists. Carlo Maratta, for example was considered one of the foremost artists of his time and had an entire room devoted to his works but this reputation is yet to be endorsed by modern scholars.

Even though this historic exhibition has now departed, Houghton Hall still retains one of the original 1779 sale pictures and has many other features to delight visitors, including its Neo Palladian architecture and an abundance of fixtures and fittings of the finest quality.

Our thanks, as ever, to the Events Committee, for making this excellent visit possible. ”