Walpole's Hall of Fame

By Barker, Alex | History Today, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Walpole's Hall of Fame


Barker, Alex, History Today


A Georgian extravaganza currently on show at Kenwood House in Hampstead, north London, brings together for the first time in 200 years a number of paintings amassed by Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. His collection, a tableau of English Grand Tour taste, was second only to that of George I, amounting to some 400 pictures and including works by Poussin, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Gainsborough.

The exhibition has been organised jointly by English Heritage in association with the Norwich Castle Museum, where it has already been shown. This is the first time that it has been possible to reunite this collection in Britain, as the majority of it was sold abroad after Walpole's death in 1745, making this a unique event.

Walpole began the collection in 1718 with his first purchase: two landscapes by Jan Griffier Senior. It grew through the gifts of friends, family and diplomats, and from Sir Robert's regular attendance at art sales. Later he would be represented at major collection sales by buyers acting on his behalf, or by his son, Horace.

Thirty years after Walpole's death 181 of the paintings were sold privately to Catherine the Great by Sir Robert's grandson, George, 3rd Earl of Orford, having been valued at 40,52 [pounds sterling]. The sale was made to raise money needed to pay off the 50,000 [pounds sterling] worth of debts owed by the Houghton estate. The Russian empress saw the accumulation of great works of art as essential to attracting prestige and authority to her empire. Horace Walpole, George's uncle, opposed the sale to Russia, fearing a drain of England's artistic wealth, but he failed to prevent nearly half his father's collection becoming an important part of Catherine's vast trove of art assembled for the newly built Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Many of these paintings still reside in the Hermitage, while others were sold by the Soviets to buyers in the USA during the 1920s. A number have been tracked down for the Kenwood exhibition, together with paintings from Houghton Hall, Walpole's Norfolk seat to which he retired in l after his fall from office, and no in the possession of the Marquess of Cholmondeley.

The exhibition seeks to recreate the splendour of Houghton Hall. The staging of this event at Kenwood, itself a fine example of eighteenth-century architecture, means that the collection is presented in a genuine Georgian context, and provides an insight into the life of one of this country's great statesmen. As home to another art collection, the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood also offers the facilities needed to properly display all the exhibits, which are arranged just as they were in Sir Robert's time, thanks to the diligence of Horace Walpole. His guide to Houghton, Aedes Walpolianae, written in 1747, documents the interiors at Houghton, and was one of Britain's earliest country house guide books.

A remarkable assembly of drawings, sculpture, manuscripts, prints, printed books and furniture, including the furnishings and decorations devised for Houghton Hall by the English designer, William Kent, accompanies the paintings. Exhibition curator, lan Degardin, believes that this gives the whole event a broader attraction, and brings together some of the highest quality exhibits seen, even at Kenwood, for many years'.

One of the finest pieces on show is a portrait of Pope Clement IX by Carlo Maratti. Clement's measured and omniscient gaze captivates the onlooker, while his right hand adorned with a family ring, resting thoughtfully on a book, reminds us not only of Clement's intellect and scholarship, but the ever-present powers of nepotism in the Roman church. Another portrait - of Philip, 4th Lord Wharton, who was a prominent member of the court of Charles I - is of special interest. It was one of Van Dyck's earliest commissions in England and formed part of one of Walpole's most astute acquisitions, a collection of forty-six Van Dyck's he purchased in 1725. …

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