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'Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House' concludes U.S. tour at Frist Center
Houghton Hall exterior. Photo: Nick McCann.

NASHVILLE, TN.- The Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House, a remarkable assemblage of paintings, furniture, porcelain, silver, costumes and other decorative arts from the 18th-century Norfolk estate of England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Concluding its landmark tour of the U.S., the exhibition is on view in the Center’s Ingram Gallery from February 13 through May 10, 2015.

Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in collaboration with Houghton Hall, the exhibition features more than 150 objects that tell a captivating story of three centuries of British art, history and politics. Many of the objects are being presented in vignettes with large-scale photographic murals designed to re-create the key architectural spaces of the house, such as the impressive Stone Hall, with its white marble ornamentation; the gilded Saloon, covered in crimson velvet; the Marble Parlour dining room, dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus; and the mahogany-paneled Library.

The house’s extravagant design and furnishings—chiefly of the Palladian style—were meant to reflect the social and cultural aspirations of its owner, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), and were a testament to his sophistication and wealth as well as to his new position in government. In reference to the dual nature of the country house, a contemporary of Walpole’s described the ground floor as “dedicated to fox-hunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business,” and the state floor as a tribute to “taste, expense, state and parade.”

Assembled by eight generations of Walpole’s descendants, including the seventh and current Marquess of Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), the objects on view offer a rare glimpse into the private interior of one of Britain’s grandest country houses. “Houghton Hall is indeed remarkable because it was one of the first homes in Britain in which the architecture, furnishings, art, and gardens were fully integrated,” says Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez. “Through this exhibition, largely organized by room, visitors in Nashville will be able to experience Houghton’s interiors as if they were walking through the actual home in Norfolk and see sumptuous décor similar to what we enjoy watching on Downton Abbey.”

Highlights of the exhibition include family portraits by William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent; Sèvres porcelain and Garrard silver; and furniture designed by one of the stars of the exhibition, William Kent. “Kent is credited with transforming the look of a nation,” Ms. Delmez says. “Although a majority of his work was influenced by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, he brought a fresh style to Georgian England that did not look Continental European.” Houghton was one of the first homes in which Kent took a holistic design approach, considering everything from the chimney surrounds to the ceilings to the furniture to the way the paintings were hung. “He is celebrated for creating a fully unified design scheme in his buildings in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright would work two hundred years later in America.”

Although Houghton Hall is renowned for its design cohesiveness, the collections have evolved over time with the addition of new objects. “Each generation of residents brought into the house various items of interest to them, and Houghton in the 21st century reflects this family history and tradition of collecting,” Ms. Delmez says. “Many family members collected Sèvres porcelain, for example, so there are numerous examples spanning a wide time period on view.” Seen together, the items in the exhibition demonstrate the rarified taste and access to great makers that such aristocrats had.

Paintings and Sculpture
The exhibition includes paintings made by artists such as Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Thomas Gainsborough, Théodore Géricault, Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyck, among many other notable figures. There are also portraits of family members by Pompeo Batoni, William Hogarth, Paul Manship, Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent. Roman antiquities from the second century include marble busts of Zeus and Hadrian.

Decorated by influential architect, landscape architect and designer William Kent, the interior rooms in Houghton Hall were settings for elaborate furniture integrated seamlessly with the space. Highlights include gilt-wood armchairs and stools with original upholstery and beautifully carved mahogany benches designed by Kent; Sir Robert Walpole’s walnut daybed and side chairs; a pair of japanned (lacquered) tables and chairs; and a carved gilt-wood throne made in 1847 for Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future King Edward VII, which is still used today by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.

Decorative Arts
The French Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory is well represented in the exhibition by a magnificent matching set of bleu nouveau vases, four rare snail-shaped potpourri vessels, and a pair of bulb vases, as well as a wine cooler and sets of plates, cups, and saucers. Other notable objects include a silver-gilt punch bowl commissioned by King George I, a remarkable set of seventeenth-century woven tapestries depicting various seasonal activities, and three rolls of a brilliant blue chinoiserie wallpaper.

Historical Background of Houghton Hall
Sir Robert Walpole’s Houghton Hall was designed by the architects Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, and construction began in 1722. Located in Norfolk, one hundred miles northeast of London, the 106-room residence is recognized as one of the finest examples of Palladianism—a style evoking the idealized classical world—and once housed one of the most extensive art collections in Britain. After Sir Robert Walpole’s death in 1745, the grand collection of Old Master paintings was sold by his grandson to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1779, which caused public outrage. The house and its furnishings, however, remained intact. Shortly thereafter, the estate was inherited by the Cholmondeley family through the grandson of Sir Robert’s daughter Mary, but it was rarely occupied during the nineteenth century.

The estate came alive again in the early twentieth century when the 5th Marquess and his wife (born Sybil Sassoon) made the house their permanent home in 1919 and carefully restored it to its former splendor. Lady Sybil’s patronage and close relationship with many artists, including John Singer Sargent, brought new works into Houghton as did the inheritance of treasured objects from her brother, the notable collector Sir Philip Sassoon.

Interactive Virtual Tour Kiosks and Audio Guide
The Frist Center’s presentation of Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House includes interactive kiosks featuring an iPad application that will give visitors the opportunity to virtually tour the magnificent estate. The app was made by CyArk, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating digital archives of historic sites, using cutting-edge laser scans Houghton Hall. Seeing objects in the exhibition in their original context sheds light on how these paintings and other treasures fit into designer William Kent’s elaborate interiors. Other interpretive elements include an audio guide that was written and produced by the Frist Center for Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House. The tour introduces key individuals in the history of Houghton Hall and highlight paintings and decorative arts objects in the exhibition. Ocean Way Recording Studios and Belmont University donated studio time and recording expertise to the production of this audio tour.

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