Houghton Hall Revisited

The State Hermitage Museum

One of history’s greatest art collections comes home for the summer.

“Houghton has had its ups and downs, but in many respects it’s a rare time capsule. Everything is still remarkably intact—except, of course, for the famous collection of paintings,” David, the seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, recently told a crowd at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Since inheriting Houghton Hall in 1990, Cholmondeley has worked tirelessly to return the great Palladian country house to its original splendor. His stunning restoration, combined with a near-open-door policy, has persuaded many Londoners to venture to Norfolk to visit the home. This month Cholmondeley adds the finishing touches. With assistance from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Cholmondeley will bring more than 60 paintings from Sir Robert Walpole’s collection back to their historic home for a special exhibition opening in May.

Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, amassed artwork throughout the 18th century to ornament his country house and brighten his city home at 10 Downing Street. Works by Poussin, Rubens and Velázquez filled the collection. Walpole even commissioned William Kent to build custom frames to match the decor. But in the end, Walpole’s fine taste exceeded his allowance. Upon his death in 1745, his descendents inherited Houghton Hall—as well as staggering debt, only worsened by his grandson George’s gambling habit.

They searched for a way to save the house and settled on an art auction. At the last minute, Catherine the Great of Russia swooped in and bought the entire collection. Most of the paintings have been at the Hermitage for more than 200 years.

There’s no question as to where the works will go: Among Houghton’s many treasures, Cholmondeley discovered explicit instructions for the paintings’ placement. “Houghton Revisited” is on view from May 17 to September 29; Houghton Hall, King’s Lynn, Norfolk; houghtonrevisited.com.