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'Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House' opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Stone Hall at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell.

HOUSTON, TX.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opens an unprecedented exhibition: Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House, which will be on view at the Museum from June 22 to September 21, 2014. The exhibition marks the first time the renowned collection of the Marquesses of Cholmondeley, housed at Houghton Hall, the family estate in Norfolk, will travel outside of England.

The house and much of its collection were built in the early 1700s by Sir Robert Walpole—England’s first prime minister and the ancestor of the current marquess. Renowned as one of the finest Palladian houses and one of the most extensive art collections in Britain, Houghton became notorious when Sir Robert’s collection of Old Master paintings was sold by his grandson to Catherine the Great, in 1779. But the house and all of its furnishings, considered to comprise William Kent’s Georgian masterpiece, remained intact; Walpole’s descendants added considerably to the collection of paintings. From great family portraits by William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent, to exquisite examples of Sèvres porcelain, rare pieces of R. J. & S. Garrard silver and unique furniture by William Kent, the exhibition vividly evokes the fascinating story of art, history and politics through the collections of this aristocratic English family over three centuries.

Organized by Tinterow; Christine Gervais, associate curator; and Lord Cholmondeley, the exhibition will tour nationally after the Houston presentation, beginning with the Legion of Honor of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (October 18, 2014–January 18, 2015) and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (February 13–May 10, 2015).

“Houghton Hall and its superb collections epitomize the historic legacy of art, architecture and patronage among the great families and country houses of England,” commented Tinterow. “I am delighted to partner with David Cholmondeley to bring this extraordinary heritage to American audiences. Given our fascination with Downton Abbey and its similar story of a great English house and its family, I know this exhibition will be highly anticipated.”

“I was enormously gratified by the response to Houghton Revisited, the exhibition in which we reunited the paintings sold to Catherine the Great with their home at Houghton Hall,” commented David Cholmondeley on the success of that recent project. “I look forward to working with Gary Tinterow and his colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to share Houghton Hall and our family’s history with visitors in Houston, San Francisco and Nashville.”

Portrait of an English Country House
Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House will assemble more than 100 objects in settings that combine paintings, porcelain, sculpture, costume, metalwork and furniture to evoke the stunning rooms at Houghton Hall. Bought or commissioned by eight generations of descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, together these objects comprise a fascinating chronicle.

Paintings and Sculpture
In this exhibition, the family portraits alone read as a Who’s Who of great painters over the centuries—from 18th-century masters Pompeo Batoni, William Hogarth, John Hoppner and Joshua Reynolds to renowned 20th-century artists John Singer Sargent, Paul Manship and Cecil Beaton. Apart from the paintings originally owned by Walpole, an extraordinary collection of masterworks was amassed by his descendants, and many of these objects will be on view in Houston: a Giambologna bronze, The Rape of the Sabine Woman (late 16th century); Thomas Gainsborough’s celebrated 1754 self-portrait; an early-19th-century signature horse picture by Théodore Géricault, Les Poitrails; Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones’s The Prince Entering the Briar Wood (1869); and a luminous, 1882 Venetian view by John Singer Sargent.

The exhibition also features significant loans—paintings that were once in the family’s possession but were sold to Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1779, after Walpole’s grandson squandered the family fortune. Among these works are important portraits by Frans Hals, Anthony van Dyck and Diego Velázquez, which made their way from Catherine the Great’s holdings, to the nationalized collections under Josef Stalin, to collector Andrew Mellon, and eventually to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which has lent the paintings for this presentation.

Eighteenth-century architect, landscape architect and furniture designer William Kent was legendary even in his own time. When Sir Robert Walpole commissioned Kent to design the interiors of Houghton Hall, in the 1720s, Walpole knew that the architect would fully integrate Houghton’s interiors with the superb collections of art and decorative arts to create a complete environment. The installation for Portrait of an English Country House will be organized around scrim panels, used as backdrops for the settings to evoke the architectural spaces of Houghton. Within these settings, 30 pieces from the house’s furniture collection will be on view. Among them are a gilt-wood console table, an armchair, a stool and a pair of mahogany hall benches by Kent; a massive pier mirror attributed to Kent; a George II four-poster child’s bedstead with silk and satin embroidered hangings and a coverlet; Walpole’s mahogany daybed and a pair of walnut side chairs that originally belonged to him; a pair of green-silk upholstered armchairs attributed to Benjamin Goodison, cabinetmaker to King George II; and a carved gilt-wood throne of HRH the Prince of Wales, designed in 1847 for Queen Victoria’s prince consort, Albert—part of the Cholmondeley family legacy in their hereditary service to the crown.

Textiles, Silver and Personal Objects
The Cholmondeley family has served in the House of Lords for centuries and has had close ties to England’s royal family as hereditary Great Lords Chamberlain. As a result, coronation robes and family coronets worn to royal ceremonies have descended through the family. Included in the exhibition are the velvet, fur and gilt-metal Cholmondeley Coronet, from before 1902, and a coronation robe and train worn by Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, at the 1937 coronation of George VI. Significant 18th- and 19th-century silver, much of it by legendary makers such as William Lukin, R. J. & S. Garrard and Matthew Boulton, include Marchioness Sybil’s 15-piece Garrard dressing-table set from 1913 and soup tureens, punch bowls, candelabra, porringers and wine coolers. Several dozen pieces of Sèvres porcelain include pots-pourris, lidded broth bowls, cups and saucers and vases. All testify to the elaborate fixtures required for the extensive entertaining that took place at Houghton Hall.

Throughout the installation, books and manuscripts will serve as personal markers to the history of the collection and the house. Two guest books, belonging to the marquess’ grandmother and great-grandmother, contain sketches and notes from the likes of John Singer Sargent and Charlie Chaplin. Sir Robert Walpole’s 1715 edition of Andrea Palladio’s seminal treatise, Quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books of Architecture), and three volumes of Houghton Hall architect Colen Campbell’s landmark Vitruvius Britannicus (The British Architect) of 1717–31, allude to the home’s architectural heritage. Painting inventories from 1743, 1745 and 1792 (the last with annotations by Horace Walpole, Robert’s son) chart the collection’s famous history.

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