This is a story about making amends for cultural asset-stripping in the grand style. A little over three hundred years ago, the debt-ridden grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first Prime Minister, sold off to Catherine the Great of Russia the great art collection amassed by his grandfather.
Those paintings helped to form the core collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The asking price was £40,555, plus the bonus of a gift of a portrait of Catherine herself, which has hung above the mantelpiece of one of the great state rooms ever since. There was an almighty hullabaloo in parliament. Now, seventy of those paintings have returned to the rooms and the positions they once occupied in Houghton Hall, Norfolk, the great Palladian house that was built to house them.
The exhibition is a tour of the mind of an astute and discerning eighteenth-century connoisseur, which takes us from the intimacy of the Common Parlour, a dining room in all but name, through to the great Saloon, the climax of this grand tour. Paintings are in competition with the fuss and clamour of furnishings, tapestries, carved sconces and brocaded silk hangings.
In the Common Parlour, the great massing of paintings - there are twenty-two of them in this room alone, hung one above another - is quite difficult to see in the half-light. A portrait by Godfrey Kneller of the great political thinker John Locke with calipers, grasping a marble bust, head made all the more magnificent by the huge flurry of his wig, hangs above the marble fireplace. Tucked in to the right of him a sober portrait of an elderly lady by Rembrandt, gnarled hands crossed piously one upon another, is just discernible through the reflective sheen of the varnish. Across from her hangs a riotous, dog-infested kitchen scene by Teniers. Perhaps the greatest work of all is a monumentally still 'Holy Family' by Poussin - Walpole owned several works by Poussin - which hangs above the fireplace in the Embroidered Bedchamber. It seems to look forward, almost uncannily, to Picasso's monumental classical nudes of the 1920s.
In spite of the fact that from time to time Walpole becomes far too besotted by the classical ideal as interpreted by his near-contemporaries, this is a show of museum quality. And yet, having been created in the first half of the eighteenth century it was a museum without a general public because there was no such institution in those days. His exquisite connoisseurship was shared only by his guests, of whom there were legion. According to a note, 6,264 bottles of good wine were drunk in 1733. How do we know that? The empties were returned to the wine merchant.
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