Paintings return to England for first time in 230 years

London, May 17 (IANS) A world-class collection of oil paintings returning from Russia to England is like the treasures of the Forbidden City returning to Beijing, the exhibition curator said.

The bulk of the collection of oil paintings brought together by the first British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in the first half of the 18th century is returning from its current Russian home in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to the mansion which was built to house it.

Paintings have also come from other collections in Russia and in the US.

The exhibition is scheduled to be from May 17 to Sep 29.

It is at Houghton Hall in the English countryside about two hours’ drive north of London, the stately home which Walpole built to house his huge collection of masterpieces.

The hall was built between 1722 and 1735 and is now in the hands of Lord Cholmondeley, a direct descendant of Walpole.

Thierry Morel, the exhibition curator, told Xinhua that it had taken three years to set up the exhibition.

“I wanted to find a project that would resuscitate some of the historic episodes of cultural relations between Russia and England. This was the most significant collection that had entered the Hermitage in Catherine the Great’s time.”

The collection was sold off by Walpole’s grandson because he was short of money, and he raised more than 40,000 pounds, in those days a fortune, with his sale of the paintings to Catherine the Great in 1779.

Walpole had been immensely rich during his lifetime but had spent a fortune on amassing the collection and on building Houghton Hall. When he died he left big debts.

“So his son and his grandson had to sell. There was a sale in 1748 when a few of the lesser pictures were sold, but then his grandson, who was a spendthrift and a gambler, decided to sell the entire collection,” said Morel.

Walpole’s grandson sold 204 paintings to Catherine the Great, and about 75 pictures are returning for the exhibition.

A few of these paintings have returned to Britain before, said Morel, but not to Houghton Hall.

“The setting at Houghton Hall was created for them, and it is still entirely original,” said Morel.

The exhibition includes works by the greatest painters of the 17th and 18th centuries including Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, the French painter Nicolas Poussin, the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, and the Spanish master Diego Velasquez.

“It is very unusual to find an 18th century house in its original state. And also it was designed by the best architect of Walpole’s time. And the interior was designed by William Kent, who had studied in Italy and was very much influenced by Italian and French architecture,” said Dr Morel.

Morel said: “Kent knew the collection very well because he had been involved in recreating the interiors of Downing Street, which was Walpole’s home in London when he was Britain’s first prime minister.”

“The house was gifted to him by the King, but when Walpole retired he gifted the house to the state. Many of the pictures that you see in the exhibition had been hanging in Downing Street in Walpole’s time.”

Morel said that in 1742 Walpole brought all the paintings from Downing Street to Houghton and the interiors were created by Kent with those pictures in mind, and those interiors still exist.

“When you see those pictures now in Houghton Hall they look as though they have always been here,” said Morel.

“What is wonderful about this collection is that most of the paintings are of outstanding quality. But of the more famous ones the masterpieces are the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velasquez, the picture of the Holy Family by Poussin, which is remarkable, The Prodigal Son’ by Salvator Rosa, and the ‘Judgment of Paris’ by Carlo Maratta, which has never been exhibited in Britain ” said Dr Morel.

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