paintings from the hermitage return to england

Houghton Hall, Yorkshire, England
image credit: Houghton International
In an unprecedented move, The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is temporarily reuniting 126 major Old Master paintings with their ancestral home of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England from 17 May to 29 September 2013 in what promises to be an exhibition to remember.  “Houghton Revisited” will display the paintings in their original positions along with furniture and decorative art just as it was in 1740 when the house was the country seat of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) and before the paintings were sold to Catherine the Great.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

The core of the Walpole collection was 17thcentury Dutch and Flemish painters, though Italian, French and Spanish masters of the Golden Age were also well represented – Rembrandt, Rubens, Nicholas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Guido Reni, and Salvator Rosa among others.  Wonderful portraits by English artists like van Dyck and Sir Godfrey Kneller round out the collection.
The Immaculate Conception by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Some must sees are The Sacrifice of Abraham by Rembrandt, a treasure of the Hermitage and a rare treat to see outside of Russia; An Immaculate Conception by Bartolome Esteban Murillo; The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and John the Baptist by Nicolas Poussin which Walpole’s son noted as one of the gems of his father’s collection.
Fruit Shop by Frans Snyders

Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) may be known to most history buffs as the first Prime Minister of England, but to art history students, it was his voracious art collecting that is still talked about today.  He was perhaps the greatest art collector in British history, save for the Royal family themselves, and his country estate Houghton Hall was the grand setting built to display his pride paintings.
The Prodigal Son by Salvator Rosa
image credit: © The State Hermitage Museum

But one cannot live on art alone, and after his death, his heirs struggled with debt.  In 1779, while Walpole’s grandson was organizing a public sale with James Christie (the founder of Christie’s), Catherine the Great of Russia showed interest and bought the whole lot of 204 works for the astonishing sum of GBP 40,555 (equivalent to about US$76.5 million today) and visitors to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg have been thanking him ever since.
Pope Innocent X by Diego Velazquez 

image credit: © The National Gallery, Washington

The heart of the collection has remained pretty much intact except for a 36 paintings that have been lost – yes you heard correctly – and several that were sold to raise money in the 1930s during the Stalinist era to Andrew Mellon amongst others.  These include Diego Velazquez, Portrait of Innocent X and Frans Hals, Portrait of a Young Manthat are today part of the collection at the National Gallery, Washington and which were graciously loaned to the Exhibition as well.
Portrait of Sir Thomas Wharton by Sir Anthony van Dyck
The house itself, now the home to the current 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, is a perfect example of Palladian architecture and certainly worth a visit just to see the gob-smacking interiors designed by William Kent.  But for the next five months it will really be about the art and how it enhanced the decorating scheme to make Houghton Hall one of the greatest English country estates.