Gallery: Art treasures of Britain’s first prime minster return to Houghton Hall

Bartolomm,The Immaculate Conception. Pictures: State Hermitage Museum

Bartolomm,The Immaculate Conception. Pictures: State Hermitage Museum - Credit: Archant

Some of the world’s finest paintings are coming home to Norfolk in an extraordinary first.

Paris Bordone, Two Women, a Cupid and a Soldier

Paris Bordone, Two Women, a Cupid and a Soldier - Credit: Archant

Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, amassed a huge collection of art which was shared between Downing Street and Houghton Hall more than 200 years ago.

They will go back on show at the hall from May 17-September 29, giving a new generation a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see works of art by the likes of Rubens, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Velazquez and Rembrandt in their original setting as chosen and placed by the former PM.

People from around the globe are expected to view the pieces, many of which come direct from their current home in Russia’s world-famous Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Their return is the latest chapter in a story going back several generations and marks the culmination of a long-held dream for the Marquess of Cholmondeley, who took over the hall more than 20 years ago.

“One of the first things I did was look through Sir Robert Walpole’s desk in the library and I came across his original plans for the picture hang in three rooms,” he recalls. “It was an extraordinary thing. I don’t think my grandmother knew they were there and I’d certainly never seen them.”

He says the Houghton Revisited exhibition will bring much exciting history to life.

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“There are many, many great characters involved and that will spark the imaginations of everyone – particularly the children who visit – and I am very keen to attract all ages to come and see it.”

Exhibition curator Dr Thierry Morel says Sir Robert had an eclectic but very good taste in art; buying the best of the best that was available at the time in Europe.

“He had agents all over the continent buying works he had heard of. He also sent his sons to Italy and they brought back many masterpieces too.”

When he died, the estate was saddled with debt compounded by the third Earl of Orford. This meant more than 200 of the most valuable works needed to be sold to help save Houghton.

Although they were originally due to be sold at auction, Catherine the Great offered to buy the lot for her Hermitage at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.

“I realised the Walpole Collection was perhaps the most important collection of works coming from one country to Russia in the 18th Century. I had been to Houghton many years ago and thought it was one of the most beautiful houses in Britain,” adds Dr Morel.

“I put two and two together and thought as the house was intact as it was in the 18th Century and the pictures are mostly still in the Hermitage, why not reunite the house with the pictures? This exhibition is a dream come true for me. I hope all the visitors will share that excitement. I am pretty confident they will.”

Advance tickets are already on sale. See some of the paintings in the attached gallery

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