Painting, Passion and Politics: Masterpieces
from the Walpole Collection
The collection of Sir Robert Walpole perfectly reflected an early 18t-century English collector's taste. At its core were works by Dutch and especially Flemish painters. However, it also represented well the French and Italian schools of painting. The most remarkable paintings were by Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Frans Snyders, Guido Reni, Carlo Maratti and Salvator Rosa. Alongside these were great works by such artists as Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain and a painting by Bartolome Murillo in its original frame designed by William Kent for Houghton Hall.
Arrival of the Walpole collection in St Petersburg in 1779 was an important event in the Hermitage history. Sir Robert Walpole's paintings greatly expanded the Imperial collection, adding to it a few works by English masters, such as Portrait of Abraham van der Dort and Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller and Dogs by John Wootton.
Abraham's Sacrifice by Rembrandt (1606-1669), acquired by Walpole in 1736, is one of the most famous works in the Hermitage. It was an extraordinary privilege for the Hermitage Rooms to have been allowed to show this masterpiece, which rarely leaves Russia.
Sir Robert Walpole's son Horace in his catalogue of his father's collection (1747) describes Nicolas Poussin's The Holy Family with Saints Elisabeth and John the Baptist as "one of the most Capital Pictures in this collection". Italian Baroque pictures were much in vogue in the 18th century, as showed by The Fathers of the Church Disputing the Christian Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Guido Reni (1575-1642).
Sir Robert Walpole also acquired pictures by artists who played a central role in the visual arts in Britain and the temporary return of some of these works to London was a welcome event. Like his contemporaries, Walpole admired the portraiture of Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Of special interest in the exhibit were his portrait of Inigo Jones, the renowned British architect who worked at old Somerset House; the portrait of Sir Thomas Chaloner, one of the judges who sentenced Charles I to be executed; and the double portrait of the children Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton painted in 1640 for their father, Lord Wharton, one of Van Dyck's most admiring patrons. Catherine II's purchases also included the portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1649-1723) of the great woodcarver and sculptor Grinling Gibbons, who had worked at Houghton Hall.
The inherited debts of Robert Walpole's grandson, George Walpole, the 3rd Earl of Orford, were the main cause of the sale of such a large number of paintings from his collection to Empress Catherine the Great. The final price she paid for the 204 works was 40,555 pounds sterling and she despatched a ship to England to transport the paintings to Russia in the autumn of 1779. The Russian art historian Vladimir Loewinson-Lessing, author of a distinguished history of the Hermitage, described the acquisition of Lord Walpole's gallery as "one of the greatest events in the life of the Hermitage". Six of the Walpole paintings were sold abroad in the 1930s but 126 are still in the Hermitage, a further 15 in Moscow and 21 more in various museums around Russia and the Ukraine. The fate of 36 is still unknown, 6 of them having disappeared during the German occupation of former Imperial palaces during the Second World War. Portrait of George I by G. Kneller which disappeared during the War from the St Petersburg suburban residence Gatchina was restored to Russia by the German government in June 2002.
Although Walpole's picture collection was acquired by Empress Catherine II, his antique and Renaissance sculpture, splendid furniture and other furnishings for Houghton Hall were not sold and remain in the house for which they were bought or commissioned. The Marquess of Cholmondeley, Sir Walpole's direct descendant and the present owner of Houghton Hall, had generously lent a distinguished group of furniture and sculpture together with a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole by his favourite artist John Wootton (1682-1764) so that the visitors could appreciate Sir Walpole's vision for the interior of the house.
The exhibition had offered the public a splendid opportunity to see this legendary British collection temporarily returned to the collector's country.