Houghton homecoming

John Leigh on “Houghton Revisited: the Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage” at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, until 29 September

Carlo Maratta, Pope Clement XI (detail)

When, in 1779, Robert Walpole’s superb collection of Old Masters was sold to Catherine the Great, its departure is said to have unleashed a national outcry. No doubt prompted by an uncharitable mixture of Schadenfreude and sour grapes, reports that the collection had been dashed to pieces in a shipwreck en route duly ensued. In 1838, long after the works had safely landed at the Hermitage, John Sell Cotman, with possibly the only painting ever to have been inspired by a rumour, lent this wholly unjustified fantasy some substance by depicting the cargo descending picturesquely to its watery grave.

Cotman, a Norfolk man of course, was lamenting the fact that his chance to see the treasures now salted away in St Petersburg, had evaporated. But to most Britons, Houghton cannot have been that much more accessible. Indeed, even now, Walpole’s West Norfolk hermitage continues to occupy a delightfully obscure pocket in one of England’s few motorway-free counties. The shock at how tons of Houghton’s prized paintings could be allowed to leave was probably compounded by indignation of a patriotic colour. Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee, ten years earlier, had given expression to British cultural confidence, buoyed by an uninterrupted succession of territorial gains throughout the Seven Years' War (1756-63). In these circumstances, it was likely to have been difficult to accept that a great art collection needed to go to, of all places, Russia. Not perhaps until the purchase of Chelsea FC by Roman Abramovich did a Russian acquisition seem quite so preposterous—although Tsar Paul I and his successor entertained the idea of acquiring Malta from the UK in the early 19th century.

Unlike the treasures of Charles I which were dispersed when sold, Walpole’s collection has remained not only above water, but mostly intact. Houghton Hall has now welcomed back some 60 paintings. Better still, it has been possible, thanks to the archives, to replace them in their original locations.

The slight effort in straining to see the skied paintings, some of which would no doubt have been cleaned had they remained in British hands, is more than compensated for by the thought that this was exactly how they were seen in the 18th century. But the quirkily non-consecutive numbering in the little guide book to the paintings probably makes identification of them more of a lottery than authenticity demands.

The quality and quantity alike of the paintings are striking, yet the sight of such a collection induced a hint of melancholy in this reviewer. This may be attributable to the sad story of profligacy and ruin of which they are a part, but it may also have something to do with the artists who form its core. Unusually and admirably, no works once attributed to and bought as Old Masters in this collection have subsequently been given by scholars to lesser lights. They are what they seemed, but it is their status that has changed. Carlo Maratta is the pre-eminent example of diminished fame and eclipsed glory. He was Robert Walpole’s favourite artist. A room at Houghton was named in his honour. His star has faded, although the gorgeous crimson hues in the portrait of Pope Clement XI that dominates that room have not.

The wealth of brilliant portraits is remarkable, yet it is still hard to avoid pining, greedily, for the paintings that are not here, like Rubens’s Hélène Fourment, around 1620, who does not travel these days. The collection testifies to Walpole’s love of portraits - some, obviously, of patrons and of friends, but others, like the magnificent Van Dycks on display, less to signal allegiances than to gratify the eye. The 18th century may have been the Age of Reason, but it was also the Age of Physiognomy. The dazzling array of portraits allows us to savour some of the 18th-century fascination with powerful individuals (exemplified by, say, Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, 1733-34, and Dr Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, 1779-81) and the allied suspicion that their genius and their idiosyncrasies may be the same thing.

We are also reminded that subject matter did not necessarily trouble 18th-century British patrons, if the artist were sufficiently accomplished. The collection naturally features Walpole’s Whiggish heroes, but artists, like Poussin (and, of course, Maratta), working in Rome on high Catholic subjects, were not thereby barred. Superstition, as Gibbon grudgingly allowed, could be the father of taste. By the same token, conspicuous by their absence here are Dutch painters and the genre scenes for which they were celebrated. There seem also be no drawings on display from the collection. Besides, it would have been useful to know more about the extent to which the collection became known and remained virtually intact via sets of engravings. Indeed, lining the walls of one of Houghton’s staircases are, as ever, a number of 18th-century prints, shades of the originals, elegantly, if poignantly, commemorating the paintings that departed. Now, magically, for one summer, those shadows are lifted by colours.

Published Fri, 14 Jun 2013 15:30:00 GMT

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