Magazine article The Spectator

Art in Country Houses

Magazine article The Spectator

Art in Country Houses

Article excerpt

Last year 114,000 people flocked to Houghton Hall in north Norfolk for a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Part of the great collection of paintings sold by the Walpole family in 1779 to Catherine the Great of Russia was back, thanks to a generous loan from the Hermitage. It was an un usual triumph - a blockbuster exhibition in a private house rather than an art gallery.

Most art before that last century was made to be seen in houses or churches. 'Houghton Revisited' was a compelling reminder that it looks best in those settings.

Since art in our country houses hits the headlines only when it's sold or stolen, it's often assumed that most of the best works have long gone to museums. Yet the mere fact that thieves in recent years have made off with a Leonardo da Vinci (the Duke of Buccleuch's 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder' at Drumlanrig Castle) and a Titian (the Marquess of Bath's 'Rest on the Flight to Egypt' at Longleat) reveals what riches remain - and happily both have now been returned to their owners. Neither the National Portrait Gallery nor Tate Britain can match the thrill of coming upon the great Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hatfield, home of the Cecil family, who owed their fortunes to the Virgin Queen, or seeing J.M.W. Turner's paintings of the park at Petworth hanging in the house, so that by turning your head you can see both the canvases and the views they depict.

At some houses - Chatsworth, for example, or Burghley - princely art collections are an integral part of a magnificent architectural and decorative ensemble. …

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