Masterpieces Take Summer Vacation

Masterpieces Take Summer Vacation

In an unprecedented exhibition, works from some of Russia’s greatest museums travel to a private home.

Published: May 29, 2013 (Issue # 1761)

the State Hermitage Museum

Carlo Maratta’s ‘Pope Clement IX’ is once again sitting in Houghton Hall.

In 1779 the family of Sir Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, sold his art collection to Russian Empress Catherine the Great in a sale brokered by James Christie, founder of Christie’s auction house. At the time, the Walpole collection was one of the most well-known art collections in Europe and included works by Van Dyck, Poussin, Maratti, Rubens and Rembrandt, which today form part of the collection of the State Hermitage, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the State Museum Tsarskoye Selo and other famous Russian museums – some of the same museums involved in the current scuffle over the fate of the Shchukin and Morozov collections (see story, page 15).

This exchange, however, is a much more civilized affair.

For the next several months, artworks from the collection Walpole sold will be reassembled in their original setting at Houghton Hall in King’s Lynn, in the east of England. The Hall, now the family seat of Sir Robert Walpole’s direct descendant, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, is considered one of the country’s finest Palladian houses and was designed to house Walpole’s prized collection of Old Master paintings.

Running through Sept. 23, the exhibition titled “Houghton Revisited” is a unique opportunity to view one of the most famous art collections of the 18th century in its original setting. The paintings in the exhibition will be hung in their original positions in the State Rooms, bringing them back to the splendor of more than two centuries ago.

The sale of the works from Houghton Hall by Walpole’s grandson, the 3rd Earl of Orford, in 1778-1779 was attended by great secrecy. When the proposed sale became known it generated heated public debate led by John Wilkes (1727-1797), the radical MP, and suggestions were made that the collection be purchased by the government to form the basis of a national gallery of painting.

With no public funds forthcoming and Catherine the Great eager to acquire the collection, Christie negotiated its sale for a total of £40,550 ($61,412). The collection sailed to Russia on the frigate Natalia and, despite rumours of shipwreck amidst heavy seas, it arrived safely in St. Petersburg.

The Walpole purchase was typical of Catherine who began to collect pictures as soon as she ascended the Russian throne in 1762, frequently buying whole collections of outstanding quality. Public attitude in Britain to the sale was dramatically summed up by an indignant article in The European Magazine in 1782, which said: “The removal of the Houghton Collection of Pictures to Russia is, perhaps, one of the most striking instances that can be produced of the decline of the empire of Great Britain, and the advancement of that of our powerful ally in the north…”

One of the most remarkable features of Walpole’s collection is that it perfectly reflects the taste of the period, and what most people were only able to admire Walpole was able to acquire. At its core are works by 17th century Flemish and Italian paintings: Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Antony van Dyck, Frans Snyders, Guido Reni, Carlo Maratti and Salvator Rosa.

Of the 204 paintings sold to Catherine as the Walpole collection, six were sold abroad in the 1930s but 126 remain in the Hermitage Museum collection. A further 15 are located in Moscow and 21 more in various museums around Russia and the Ukraine. The fate of 36 is still unknown, six of them having disappeared during the German occupation of former Imperial palaces during the Second World War. “Portrait of George I” by G. Kneller, which disappeared during the War from the St. Petersburg suburban residence Gatchina, was restored to Russia by the German government in June 2002.

“I would like to thank the State Hermitage Museum and other Russian museums for providing an opportunity to show this collection to the British public,” said the Marquess of Cholmondeley. “This may be the first time when such a privilege is granted to a private collection house. Undoubtedly, this exhibition is a unique event and an important step in strengthening the cultural ties between Russia and the United Kingdom.”

In fact, exhibitions like this one have never been organised before. The return of the collection will be dedicated to the 250th anniversary of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne, which takes place next year.

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