A new art exhibit in the UK, “Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage,” highlights the role that art can play in fostering improved diplomatic relations between Russia and the West.

Houghton Hall. Photo: John Bodkin

“Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage” is not only one of Britain’s most engaging art exhibitions of the year, it also marks a historic moment in cultural diplomacy for Russia and the West. For the first time in 234 years, Sir Robert Walpole’s collection of master paintings purchased by Catherine the Great in 1779 has returned to Houghton Hall. The Dutch, Italian, Spanish and French schools – Velasquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, Morratta, Rembrandt, Poussin – are represented in the collection, considered the finest in 18th century Europe.

The exhibit is a victory for British-Russian cultural diplomacy, a testament to the Russian government’s generosity in loaning some of the finest State Hermitage European masters, and a tribute to art as an instrument of national soft power. It is also a fitting prelude to the State Hermitage’s 250th anniversary in 2014.

The idea for the exhibit belongs to the Marquess of Cholmondel​ey, the direct descendant of Sir Robert and current owner of Houghton Hall, and Dr. Thierry Morel, Curator of “Houghton Revisited” and a board member of the Hermitage Museum Foundation USA. They initially approached Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage, who found the idea compelling.

Opening ceremony at Houghton. Photo: Suzanne Fossey

How the Walpole collection ended up at the Hermitage

Sir Robert Walpole amassed his collection while serving as Prime Minister (1721-1742) to King George I and first housed his collection at 10 Downing Street, which George I had given as a gift to Sir Robert. Sir Robert commissioned two leading architects of the day, Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, to design a palatial home to house his renowned art collection. The rooms were conceived with particular paintings in mind. Walpole retired to Houghton in Norfolk in 1743.   

By the late eighteenth century, the collection passed to Walpole’s wastrel grandson, Lord Olford. Gambling debts forced him to sell the collection of 204 grandmasters. He assigned the sale to James Christie, founder of Christie’s auction house, while Catherine the Great entrusted Russia’s ambassador at the Court of St. James with the purchase. The consignment travelled aboard the frigate “Natalia” to St. Petersburg.

At the time, the sale caused the British Parliament to decry the sale “as being much to the dishonor of this country.” The MP John Wilkes made a speech in parliament proposing the British Museum acquire the “invaluable treasure.”

The 204 paintings formed the crown jewel of Russia’s Hermitage collection. Catherine the Great was so pleased with the arrival of her masterpieces that she sent Lord Olford a large portrait of herself that hangs in Houghton Hall to this day.

As Dr. Thierry Morel, Exhibition Curator, told Russia Direct, “Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine the Great coveted the art of the various European schools with equal intensity and devotion. They used all political and diplomatic means, their ambassadors and even their spies to acquire these masterpieces, to build their respective collections, vivid symbols of the triumph of their nations.”

Opening ceremony at Houghton. Photo: Suzanne Fossey

Houghton Hall: The nexus of art, political power and national status

Over 800 visitors a day have viewed the collection at Houghton Hall, which itself is a symbol of the architecture of power, with its magnificent interiors. Upon entering Houghton, the visitor comes upon the Great Staircase dominated by Hubert Le Sueur’s bronze The Borghese Gladiator, presented to Sir Robert by the Earl of Pembroke.

The prestige of architecture and art is manifested in the Stone Hall, where the relief Sacrifice to Diana looms behind a bust of Sir Robert as a Roman senator. This marble portrait is amplified by other antique busts of Roman emperors, such as Marcus Aurelius, that adorn the Stone Hall. A splendid lifesize bronze modeled after the Vatican Gallery’s Laocoön, cast by Louis XIV’s sculptor François Girardon, dominates the Stone Hall, reminding visitors that Walpole undoubtedly regarded Houghton and his artworks as an extension of his public role as a member of the British Parliament.

In the exhibition catalogue, Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery in London, writes that Houghton illustrates “the whole public dimension to a private collection, and the way that a great display of paintings, sculpture and plate could be associated with political power and national status.”

Walpole’s vision of art as an element of prestige was shared by Catherine the Great and her successors. Houghton’s Stone Hall recalls the magnificent collection of Roman sculptural portraits, from the age of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian (part of the Hermitage's renowned Classical Antiquities collection)  displayed in the Room of the Great Vase.

Highlights from the Walpole collection

Houghton Hall. Photo: John Bodkin

One reason the exhibit has so captivated the public and critics is that this legendary collection was reconstructed within its original setting. Soon after Sir Robert Walpole's direct descendant, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, inherited Houghton Hall in 1990 he found engravings in the Library where Walpole had left them, enabling curators to hang the paintings in their original places in the great reception rooms of the Stone Hall, Marble Parlour, Saloon, and Embroidered Bedchamber.

The Common Parlor contains many important portraits, with the Flemish and Dutch schools particularly well represented: Inigo Jones  by Van Dyck, Head of a Girl by Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of an Elderly Lady by Rembrandt, Pope Innocent X by Velasquez and Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Knell. The Marble Parlor features full-length portraits of the Earl of Danby and Sir Thomas Wharton by Van Dyck.

The Carlo Maratta Room, named after one of the most fashionable artists of the 17th and 18th century in Rome who also happened to be Sir Robert's favourite painter, was built especially for Maratta’s and his disciples’ works. They include Pope Clement IX, The Judgment of Paris and Murillo’s Crucifixion.

The Saloon features Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception and Luca Giordano’s Vulcan’s Forge. Nicolas Poussin’s The Holy Family with Sts. John and Elizabeth, which Walpole called “one of the most capital pictures in this collection,” dominates the Embroidered Bedchamber.

In Russia, the Walpole collection formed the core of  the  Hermitage’s Western European holdings. When Tsar Nicholas I commissioned the famous German neoclassical architect Leo von Klenze in 1850s to build  the New Hermitage specifically to hold the European master collection, he was inspired by the same preoccupation of national prestige as Sir Robert. Soon Walpole’s best works from Houghton would occupy central positions in the galleries. This included Walpole’s favourite paintings, such as Poussin’s Moses Striking the Rock, which was placed in the room for 17th and 18th century French painting, and Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, which adorned the Dutch room. Several Italian works, including those by Maratta, as well as Spanish paintings, were displayed in the top-lit galleries.

Houghton Hall. Photo: John Bodkin

Two hundred years of cultural ties between Britain and Russia

Indeed, Britain and Russia have enjoyed longstanding cultural links symbolized by the 1812 War Gallery at the Hermitage, which celebrates Russia’s victory over Napoleon. The 324 portraits comprising the War Gallery – which includes the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov – were executed by the well known British artist George Dawe, who became the First Portrait Painter of the Imperial Court in Russia.

Certain Walpole master paintings were favored by the Tsars or their spouses and left the Hermitage for their private apartments. Empress Maria Alexandrovna installed Murillo’s Immaculate Conception in her boudoir. After 1917 it was returned to the Hermitage. Now the painting is back at Houghton in its original frame, one of the many religious pictures from the Spanish and Italian schools so beloved by Walpole.

“Houghton Revisited” has been extended by popular demand by two months until November 24. The State Hermitage’s generosity has been acknowledged by the Marquess of Cholmondeley. Dr. Thierry Morel of the Hermitage Museum Foundation USA points out the show’s relevance for other cultural diplomacy initiatives, “Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine the Great’s celebrated art collections have not only inspired generations of artists and citizens from all parts of the world. They  have also become the most effective diplomatic tool between nations.”