From Russia with Luck
Hot lust, cold hard cash and the fine art of a dirty deal… The story of how Britain lost, and will briefly regain, one of the greatest private collections of Old Masters ever assembled is cause for grief — and rejoicing, says Ivan Lindsay
ONE OF THE more interesting events this summer for those keen on matters artistic will be the return of around 60 masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to their former home, Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Most of these paintings have never left Russia since their acquisition by Catherine the Great in 1779, and their brief visit to England (15 May–28 September) provides a rare opportunity to see masterpieces in a country setting.
The paintings were collected by Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), the Whig statesman who was Britain’s first and longest-serving prime minister (1721–1742). Walpole amassed a fortune while he was First Lord of the Treasury and by speculating in the South Sea Bubble, which he was shrewd enough to exit before it crashed.
Lord Chesterfield described him: ‘In private life he was good-natured, cheerful, social. Inelegant in his manners, loose in his morals. He had a coarse wit, which he was too free of for a man of his station… Very able as a minister… Money, not prerogative, was the chief engine of his administration. He laughed at and ridiculed all notions of public virtue.’
Read more from Ivan Lindsay
As soon as he was able, Walpole started to collect art and, although he never left England and was busy with affairs of state, he employed secret agents and members of his family to scout Europe for masterpieces. Initially the paintings were hung at 10 Downing St, which was offered to him as a personal gift by George II in 1732. Walpole declined the gift but agreed that the house would become his London residence and be the home of all future prime ministers.
Walpole rapidly developed excellent taste, for which his former life as a country squire could not have prepared him, and paid huge prices to secure the finest masterpieces. He acquired van Dyck’s Portrait of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton of 1637 and Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s exquisite Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (c. 1610). Poussin’s Holy Portrait set a new world record for the artist when Walpole offered £400 in 1734. He also paid record prices for The Prodigal Son by Salvator Rosa (£500) and van Dyck’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (£800).
Portrait of Sir Thomas Wharton (1639) by van Dyck
This largesse, always necessary when forming an outstanding art collection and understood by Catherine the Great, was characteristic of the man whose love of risk-taking, political cunning and determination took him from Norfolk squire to the richest man in England. When Walpole died in 1745 his collection of 400 paintings and countless books, objets, furniture and sculpture was rivalled only by that of the King.
When Walpole retired from public life he started to move the entire collection from Downing Street and his other residences to Houghton Hall. It is one of the most beautiful houses in England, a key moment in the history of English Palladian architecture, and sits in a thousand acres of parkland next to Sandringham. Walpole commissioned the finest architects of his day for the house and its interiors.
Colen Campbell began the building in 1722, James Gibbs added the domes and William Kent designed the interiors. Kent’s rival, Thomas Ripley, supervised much of the actual construction work. The exterior is a subtle blend of restrained and grand, while the interiors are pure Kentian baroque, down to the detailing on the picture frames, doors, furniture, fabrics and ceilings.
Kent decided on the position of each painting and sculpture. He designed each frame individually and matched the pictures to his colour scheme for each room. The result, with the amazing selection of Murillos, Claudes and Poussins, was the finest interior in England and one of the best in Europe.
Pope Clement IX (1669) by Maratta
WALPOLE’S SPENDING WAS vast and, despite his fortune, his eldest son, Robert, discovered a secret debt of £40,000 on his father’s death. Robert Jnr (1701–1751) promptly started selling off the peripheral parts of the collection, including 130 paintings from the London houses.
However, these did not cover the debts and Robert only survived his father by six years, the estate and its debts passing to his only son, George (1730–1791). George was prone to wild behaviour, drinking, extravagance and women, and he appalled his aesthetic uncle Horace (the writer and builder of Gothic mansion Strawberry Hill in London), who said of George: ‘The most selfish man in the world… He loves none except himself, yet neglects every view of fortune and ambition… He drinks without inclination — has women — not without inclination. Games without attention; is immeasurably obstinate.’
George hosted debauched parties at Houghton before descending into mental illness. He lost the stone steps, which originally set off the east and west fronts of the house, in a bet. They were only replaced in the 1970s by Sybil Sassoon, Lady Cholmondeley. After spells of madness and suicide attempts, George became lucid and realised he needed to sell the contents of Houghton to pay off his debts.
Paris Bordone’s Two Women, a Cupid and a Soldier (c.1550s)
In Parliament there were moves to establish a national gallery, which would give England’s artists the opportunity to learn the foreign schools. But George had no interest in the national patrimony and felt he could get a higher price from international buyers. He tried to keep the sale a secret but news leaked to the press, who were horrified. Although the collection had been kept private, the public were well aware of it and took pride that an Englishman had amassed it.
Horace Walpole reluctantly intervened to help his nephew sell 204 of the paintings, and James Christie, the founder of the auction room, was contacted to value the collection and arrange the sale. Christie started to prepare the auction while the press expressed fury that the collection was to be broken up and possibly go abroad. Catherine the Great was immediately interested.
Horace Walpole despaired in private at the prospect of the destruction of what he saw as his father’s legacy, and a vitriolic battle took place among lawyers, the press and the public. Catherine’s extensive sexual tastes were referred to, she was described as an abominable and undeserving recipient of England’s finest collection. The reformist MP John Wilkes led the MPs who wished to save the paintings for the nation and make Britain ‘a favourite abode of the polite arts’, but they made little impression on an unsympathetic treasury.
Yekaterina Alexeevna, or Catherine II (1729–1796), Empress of Russia, was an enlightened despot, a correspondent of Voltaire, an amateur opera librettist and a voracious collector of the finest paintings and good-looking young army officers. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the entire Winter Palace on the banks of the river Neva in St Petersburg, was founded for her collection.
The Walpole sale was cancelled when Catherine bought the collection en bloc at Christie’s valuation of £40,000. The Cambridge Chronicle referred to the sale as ‘a dishonour to the country’.
Murillo’s Immaculate Conception (1678)
CATHERINE BOUGHT 201 paintings, of which around 60 are returning to Houghton for the summer. A couple are coming from the National Gallery in Washington, including Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1646). These were sold off by Stalin, who was desperate to raise cash in the 1920s and 1930s. Thirty-six disappeared during the Second World War and have never been seen again.
The exhibition has been conceived and curated by Thierry Morel, who showed the skills of a diplomat in making it happen. He says: ‘The experience of seeing these paintings in their original contexts will be like travelling to the moon. Visitors will be seeing something no one thought anyone would see again.’ Morel has the full support of the current owner of Houghton, David Cholmondeley, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, who says: ‘What Thierry has accomplished had seemed impossible, but he’s very persuasive.’
The curatorial team have used Kent’s and Walpole’s drawings and Horace Walpole’s catalogue of 1743 to recreate the original hang as faithfully as possible. Because the house was shut up for much of the 19th century and only re-occupied after the First World War, many of the rooms have retained their original crimson damask wall coverings.
Cholmondeley will continue to live at Houghton with his family during the exhibition, moving into the top floor. The house is expecting upwards of 80,000 visitors for the exhibition. However, with the intoxicating mixture of power, money and dissolution behind this story, the quality of the masterpieces and the novelty of seeing such works in a beautiful house in the quiet countryside, the numbers will probably be higher.
Spear’s readers at a loss for something to do on a Saturday afternoon this summer would be well advised to jump on the train to King’s Lynn, because these paintings will not be visiting these shores again during our lifetimes.
Ivan Lindsay’s new book, The History of Loot and Stolen Art, will be published by Unicorn Press this autumn
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