Let sleeping pictures lie
The weekend saw us join our Suffolk cousins Ollie and Legs to beat a pilgrimage to this year’s Valhalla for the over 60s , Houghton Hall, North Norfolk.
Here is the seat of the once mighty Sir Robert Walpole who ruled England from 1721-1742. Sir Robert is still Britain’s longest standing PM, he was also the first. He came to power after the financial scandal and mess of the South Sea Bubble. A stock scam in which Sir Robert typically sold at the top of the market. His period in power was characterised by stability and corruption. His personal maxims were “let sleeping dogs lie” and a “A man is judged by the weight of his fee”. While the European powers fought a series of dynastic and religious wars Walpole kept Britain out, safe and prosperous.
Born rich he got richer from the kick backs in politics and with his wife’s (in today’s money)£25m dowry. That didn’t stop him having a devoted mistress whom he married on the death of his wife. He like all successful men networked,in one year 6200 bottles of wine were drunk at Houghton. With his wealth he collected a supreme collection of 200 plus paintings which adorned Houghton Hall a relatively small stately house which he rebuilt ,set in the most exquisite grounds and park ,with a to die for five acre walled garden.
But the old riches to rags story was as true of the Walpoles as anyone else. Sir Robert of course over spent and on his death in 1745 left his son with £5m (today’s money)debts. The son gambled for Britain and soon the Walpoles were in a bad way. On the eve in 1779 of auctioning the great collection of Rembrandts, Poussin,Van Dycks, Murillos, Valasquez et al up pops that man eater Catherine the Great of Russia and she pays the equivalent of £50m for the lot.
She of course had already bought collections from desperate heirs in Germany and France. In the end she acquired over 4000 old masterpieces to fill her palaces in St Petersburg. She is considered one of the last best hopes of Russia to be part of the European Enlightenment. Voltaire dubbed her “the star of the north”.
Horace Walpole the junior son and great collector bemoaned the selling of the collection anticipating that the next revolt in Russia would see the collection burn with the Imperial Palace. As it was the collection has survived and it was Houghton Hall’s picture gallery which burnt down in 1789.
The excitement at Houghton Hall is that 70 of those paintings most of which are in the Hermitage in St Petersburg have been returned this year for a once in a life time visit to their original home. Original home is putting it slightly wrong because no doubt Sir Robert brought the pictures from some aristo or merchant family which was down on its luck. And so it goes.(Cynics might say that politically the deal goes,the Russians lend us pictures and we allow them to kill whoever they like in the UK)
Frankly most of the pictures or their equivalent can be seen in the National Gallery and the house is in its way no grander than say, Ham House. But the grounds… no finer sight in Britain than the two mile sculptured view from the back of Houghton.