An installation view from Houghton Revisited at Houghton Hall.

LONDON - Visiting Houghton Hall for the first time this summer for the Houghton Revisited show was fascinating. I had been lured to the country seat of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), England’s first Prime Minister, to see his collection of Old Masters, sold to Catherine the Great in 1779 and now on loan to their original home for the first time in 234 years.

As I became immersed in the exhibition, however, I realised that the story of the paintings is as compelling as their beauty. The quality and importance of the Walpole pictures speak for themselves: Jacob Jordaens’s  Self-portrait with Parents, Brothers and Sisters, Frans Snyder’s Kitchen, Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman, Salvador Rosa’s The Prodigal Son, Paris Bordone’s Venus, Flora, Mars and Cupid, Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception, were just a few of the masterpieces I found particularly moving.

Frans Snyder’s Kitchen is among the important works from Sir Robert Walpole’s collection hanging in its original place in Houghton Hall.

Collectively these works were, in Walpole’s day, the closest thing to a national collection before the founding of England’s first art gallery in Dulwich in 1811. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, Walpole, who also gave 10 Downing Street to the nation as the residence of the Prime Minister, strove to amass a collection that not only reflected his status, but also would be a legacy for generations.

But as I walked from room to room, I pondered the fate of these paintings, the public outrage to which their loss in 1779 gave rise and the repercussions of their sale. How Sir Robert’s passion for paintings led him to overspend, and his heir George Walpole, more interested in pursuing his own pleasures, took it upon himself to sell the paintings; how 204 works were sold to the then most powerful woman in the world, keen to bring Russia into the European mainstream; how the sale would have been symbolic of a greater shift in power, just three years after the loss of Britain’s North American colonies; how the paintings made the perilous 1,000 mile journey to St Petersburg; how they formed the cornerstone of Catherine’s nascent grand projet, the Hermitage Museum, and came to adorn at least four royal palaces in Russia; how, after the Revolution, they were dispersed among different Russian museums, including the Pushkin in Moscow; and how, two centuries later, they have arrived not only back at Houghton, but, thanks to rediscovered diagrams of the picture hang at Houghton from 1743, back in their exact spots on the walls. If only paintings could talk!

An exterior view of Houghton Hall.

Sir Robert Walpole’s pictures were undoubtedly the jewels in Houghton’s crown. In the words of the Marquess of Cholmondley, Sir Robert’s direct descendent, the exhibition “is akin to replacing a long-lost diamond in the centre of an antique brooch.” Curator and art historian Thierry Morel, has brilliantly and faithfully recreated the house’s former appearance, but it is an all too fleeting one, before the pictures leave once more. By popular demand, Houghton Revisited has been extended until 24 November – carpe diem!