Review: Houghton Revisited

The return of Robert Walpole’s art collection to his stately home Houghton Hall in King’s Lynn has been one of this summer’s most hotly anticipated exhibitions – so much so that it even appeared in Cherwell’s Top 5 Recommended. I would, however, like to apologise for including it in that article. After seeing it for myself, I am forced to disagree with a whole host of other reviews and call it a disappointment.

I’m not writing a critical review for the sake of looking like a supercilious student trying to demonstrate how she can think differently from the establishment. I was honestly, simply, unimpressed. This was partly to do with the excitement generated by the press. In its opening few months the exhibition received rave reviews from all sides – Brian Sewell, for example, called it “an achievement without precedent, a marvel, a wonder to behold.”  The story behind the exhibition is fascinating, albeit one I have been forced to bolster from other sources (yes, Wikipedia) and not from the literature given at the site itself. The guide to the works was clumsy and horribly overwritten; being uninformative is the exhibition’s main failing.

Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s personal art collection was one of the greatest of the 18th century. Following in the footsteps of pre-regicide collecting giants such as Buckingham, Arundel and Charles I, art-collecting in the early years of the restoration was an intensely fashionable pursuit, and one of the best ways to display wealth and taste. In the early 1700s Walpole spent over £200,000 on baroque masterpieces and asked Whitehall architect William Kent to design the Palladian monstrosity Houghton Hall to house them. On his death, however, his family were left with huge debts and by 1779 they had been forced to sell the collection. Two hundred paintings were bought en masse by Catherine the Great for £40,550 and sailed to Russia, where they have remained ever since.

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In 2010, however, whilst working at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Thierry Morel, the curator of the exhibition, found plans mapping how the paintings were hung in each room of Houghton Hall. Gathering together a huge team and vast amounts of financial and intellectual sponsorship, Morel negotiated the loan and re-hanging of the collection in their original positions. Most of the paintings are taken from the Hermitage but some from the other 400 paintings have also been borrowed.

This had the potential to be one of the most fascinating exhibitions in recent years. Not only is the collection filled with beautiful and important works of art but the story of their initial acquisition and subsequent sale could give us vast amounts of information about the 18th century art market. Why was it that Walpole went for the grandiose and the baroque? Was it personal taste or political motivation? Who saw the paintings when they were displayed? From whom did he buy them originally? Why, when it was sold, was there so little an appetite for the collection in Britain? But none of these questions are addressed.

As a spectator, it seems that you are there to merely point, stare and coo. Wow, a Rembrandt! Gosh, a Velazquez! And now I’ll go and eat an over-priced cream tea, comfortable among other middle-class pseudo-intellectuals. Exhibitions which neither demand any thought nor answer any questions about the production and acquisition of art are for the Victorians. Yes, we might still want to see fine examples of craftsmanship but you’ve got to give us more, tell us more. Admiration is much more fun when it’s accompanied by in-depth analysis. This exhibition had an enormous amount of money thrown at it by sponsors; it would have cost hardly anything to write a better and more detailed guide and to answer some of the questions that it tantalisingly dangles in front of us. 

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Houghton Revisited is showing at Houghton Hall, Norfolk til 24th November. Student tickets £12.50.