Houghton and the Lost Treasures

By Julius, Muriel | Contemporary Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Houghton and the Lost Treasures


Julius, Muriel, Contemporary Review


Driving across the flat Norfolk landscape from Kings Lynn it may come as a surprise to discover not one but two beautiful palaces, small as palaces generally go, but perfectly formed. They are Holkham and Houghton.

Houghton Hall, built by Sir Robert Walpole, is the subject of a nostalgic exhibition being held in another eighteenth century mansion, Kenwood on Hampstead Heath, London.

Once upon a time four hundred important paintings hung on the walls of Houghton. Today the greatest part of them can only be seen in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, purchased by Catherine, the autocratic and rapacious Empress of all the Russias. Its loss to the British heritage was second only to that of Charles I's collection, dispersed at the time of Cromwell's Commonwealth.

With some few examples of those paintings, some sculpture, silver, furniture, prints and drawings, the exhibition seeks to recreate something of the splendour of Houghton. Sadly, it is a meagre feast.

Sir Robert Walpole, usually considered to be our first Prime Minister, was in office from 1717 to 1742. His biographer J.H. Plumb describes him thus: 'A short, dumpy man, weighing more than twenty stone, . . . his features were large and coarse. Yet about the face there were undeniable marks of humour and intelligence which gave these strong features both animation and charm. As blunt as any man when he wished to be, he could be as supple and subtle as a serpent. Now in the noonday of his power he was the most sought-after man in the kingdom, the most feared, the most detested.'

There was some speculation as to how someone whose official salary was [pounds]9,000 per year, could afford to keep Houghton whose running costs average [pounds]1,500 per week. Apart from 10 Downing Street, Sir Robert maintained a house in Chelsea and his mistress and illegitimate daughter in a government residence in Richmond Park.

So although Walpole affected, and indeed enjoyed the rustic habits of a Norfolk squire, he did not live like one. He lived in grandeur. Few aristocrats could vie with his vast expenditure. Coarse he might be, but he had an innate love of beauty. His taste was more unerring and confident than that of most of the aesthetes who created the world of fashion.

From the beginning Houghton was conceived on a grand scale. An entire village was moved to accommodate the landscaping. The finest architects of the day, Colin Campbell, Isaac Ware, James Gibbs and Thomas Ripley were consulted. William Kent designed much of the interior and furniture. Huge blow-ups of the interior in the exhibition give some idea of its splendour.

The most dramatic room is the Saloon. Today its walls are still hung with their original material of wool and silk, known as cafoy, which looks much like handsomely designed cut velvet. Some of the furniture for this room is in the exhibition, which consisted of a suite of twelve chairs, two settees and four stools richly carved and gilded, and covered in the same cafoy. The double doors leading from the saloon with gilded pillars, exquisitely carved entablatures and pediments, are the most sumptuous I have ever seen.

In the Saloon hung some of the largest and most important paintings, The Cyclops at their Forge by Luca Giordano, Van Dyke's Rest on the Flight from Egypt with its eight enchanting little putti, and the four great market scenes of Fish, Game, Flowers and Vegetables by Frans Snyders, a pupil of Pieter Bruegel the Younger. Two small drawings by William Kent in the exhibition show his exact proposals for the picture-hang on the south and north walls of the Saloon.

From the first Walpole bought only the best, beginning in 1722 at the Duke of Portland's sale. The collection, a complete list of which was made by Walpole's youngest son, the Epicurean Horace, as different from his father as could be, included four works by Rembrandt, among them a portrait of the artist's wife, and the most important, a picture of the angel staying the hand about to slay Abraham's son, Isaac.

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