Sir Robert Walpole's 'magnificent' art collection to return home to Britain - temporarily

Works by masters including Rembrandt, Velasquez and Rubens to be displayed at Houghton Hall in Norfolk

A “magnificent” art collection built up by Britain's first Prime Minister that was later sold to Catherine the Great of Russia is to return home, temporarily, for the first time in over 230 years.

Sir Robert Walpole built the collection of works by masters including Rembrandt, Velasquez and Rubens. Yet a large part was sold off following the profligacy and inherited debts of the statesman's grandson.

The sale to Catherine the Great was arranged by James Christie, founder of the auction house. She spent £40,555 on 204 works which were displayed in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

The exhibition, which starts later this month, will display 70 paintings in the original setting of Houghton Hall in Norfolk.

Of the original collection 126 are still in the Hermitage, while a further 36 are still in Russia and the Ukraine. Others have been sold, and some lost.

Walpole entered parliament at the age of 25 in 1701 and became Britain's first Prime Minister two decades later.

Nicholas Penny, the director of The National Gallery, called Walpole's collection “magnificent”. He said that while many exhibitions looked to recreate episodes or circumstances in the past “but none can compare for sheer verve and ambition with the collaboration” between the Hermitage and Houghton Hall.

The exhibition will be opened by the Prince of Wales, with guests on the day including Alexander Lebedev, whose family owns The Independent.

Houghton Hall is the family seat of Lord Cholmondely, a direct descendent of Walpole. He said having the paintings back in the house was “thrilling” adding it was “an idea that would have delighted past generations of my family”.

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