Your details


Update your details || || Logout


Featured reviews

From Russia with love

— June 2013

Associated media

Pictures from the Hermitage back in their original places at Houghton Hall

Sue Ward enjoys a rare chance to see a fine old collection back in its 18th-century home

Last month I was among those lucky journalists who had a preview of the glorious paintings currently hanging in Houghton Hall, brought from various Russian museums, but primarily the state museum Hermitage in St Petersburg. This is one of the great art collections of the 18th century, and includes masterpieces by Rembrandt, Velasquez, Poussin, van Dyck and Rubens.

The collection had belonged to the first prime minister of Britain, Robert Walpole (1676–1745), and hung in his London houses before being moved, on his retirement, to his country seat at Houghton. Norfolk. In the 1720s, gifted architects Colen Campbell and James Gibbs had designed this Palladian mansion for Walpole, to house this extensive collection. William Kent designed the interiors (still intact), which were planned around the masterpieces, some of which have for this exhibition been reunited with their original Kent frames. Robert Walpole left debts, but it was the profligacy of his grandson the third Earl of Orford that resulted in the sale of the collection by James Christie (founder of the auction house) to Catherine the Great for £40,555. In 1779,  204 paintings were dispatched on Catherine’s ship to Russia, and they have been there for more than two centuries.

Three years ago the exhibition’s curator Dr Thierry Morel, formerly director of the London Friends of the Hermitage, had the vision to suggest that the paintings came back to Houghton for an exhibition. Insurance was going to be a big problem, but through the auspices of the foreign office the British government agreed to set up indemnity insurance. It is the first time such a thing has been granted to a private house. In 1990 the present Lord Cholmondeley, the seventh Marquess, inherited the Hall from his grandmother, and in her desk drawer he found a plan of Kent’s original hang. So with insurance in place, knowing how and where to hang the paintings, and with various sponsors headed by BP, everything was in place to make this show-stopping exhibition possible.

If you go to Houghton to see these paintings you will see 70 of them, as some of the original 204 were in too delicate a state to travel. Some are extremely heavy: Carlo Maratta’s The Judgement of Paris was dismounted from the ceiling of Catherine the Great’s summer palace at Tsarskoye Selo outside St Petersburg,andweighs more than one tonne. Others not to be missed are Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Lady, Peter Paul Rubens’ Head of a Girl, Nicolas Poussin’sThe Holy Family with St John and Elizabeth, several Van Dycks, a Murillo…the list goes on.

Few of these paintings have ever come out of Russia since Catherine the Great bought them. In 1975 Lady Sybil Cholmondeley managed to purchase a painting of the chaplain to the wife of Charles II, Joseph Carreras by Godfrey Kneller. This had been part of the original hang of 1779 and through Lady Sybil’s purchase it returned permanently to Houghton. In the 1930s the Soviet State needed money and some other works were sold off, including Frans Hals’  Portrait of a Young Man, and Velázquez’s  Pope Innocent X  to Andrew Mellon in the USA; these are on loan from Washington for the exhibition. This whole exhibition is a study in international cooperation.

On view is not only this amazing collection, but also the interiors of Houghton Hall, including sculptures by John Michael Rysbrack (1694–1770) and wonderful tapestries, the five-acre walled gardens,  and the collection of rare deer. This is a wonderful day out for the whole family.


Sue Ward

Media credit: Image: Sue Ward

Editor's notes

'Houghton Revisited: Masterpieces from the Hermitage' is on now until 24 November 2013,  Wednesday to Sunday (plus bank holidays) 11a.m.– 6p.m. Houghton is about 13 miles from King's Lynn - see the Houghton Hall website for details. Tickets should be purchased online before your visit.

Other interesting content

Subscribe to Cassone – it's free and it's fabulous