Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House, SF and Nashville

This traveling exhibit of the treasures of one of England's grandest country homes offers a tempting peek at the real thing.

Photo murals, paintings, furniture and decorations from the 106-room estate home (organized and first exhibited by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, Legion of Honor

Oct. 18, 2014 – Jan. 18, 2015

Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville

Feb. 13 – May 10, 2015

Most Americans don’t devote their lives and fortunes to shoring up their titled family’s 300-year old estate the way Lord David Cholmondeley, the current owner of the historic 4,000-acre, 106-room Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England does. So it was with a dash of awe, a dollop of curiosity and a trace of irony that I viewed “Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House.”

Built in 1720 by Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), England’s first Prime Minister-like diplomat, who served Kings George I and George II, the extraordinary Houghton Hall was constructed in the Palladian style by architects James Gibbs and Colen Campbell, with interior design and furnishings by William Kent. From the photographs and videos at the exhibit, one can only appreciate and admire the grand and pleasing proportions of the building and gardens. It certainly created in me a yen see the real thing.

The exhibit is separated into the rooms in the “country house” where the Roman busts, fine paintings, furniture, tapestries, porcelain, silver and books are regularly kept. To replicate the essence of the rooms, wall-sized photographs, really more like murals, of one wall of some rooms are displayed. These photographs do help to provide a sense of the proportions and scale of the house.

This effect works best in the library, which, in addition to the murals of walls of books and some original furniture, contains marvelous books, from Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen,” 1609, to “The Works of John Locke,” published in 1727.

The most elaborate room is the Saloon, which contains decorations including an extravagant mid-18th century French ormolu clock with commedia dell’arte figures by Charles Baltazar, and a handsome pair of armchairs, ca. 1730, designed by William Kent with their original velvet upholstery still in excellent condition. The 50 or so paintings in the Saloon, the British Painting gallery and the Picture gallery are the highlights of the exhibit. Family portraits by John Singer Sargent and his “Venise Par Temps Gris” are standouts. English paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, plus works by Andrea del Sarto, John Opie, Frans Hals and Diego Rivera, demonstrate the breadth of the collection.

Favorites of mine, perhaps because they were painted more recently than others, are a vibrant early 19th century study of seven horses, “Les Poitrails” by French artist Théodore Géricault, and “The Prince Enters the Briar Wood” by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1889).

The Cabinet, or bedroom, contains several rolls of delicate 300-year-old Chinese wallpaper in perfect condition. They are decorated with images of flowering trees and plants, birds and insects as though from a Chinese garden. An English dressing table set, 1907/1919, by the Crichton Brothers with silver gilt mirror and brushes, is in contrast to the more ornate decorations in the room.

Lord David Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”) inherited the 4,000-acre, 106-room Houghton and his title of Marquess (plus seven other titles) in 1990, at age 30. His legacy also included the Gothic Cholmondeley Castle on 7,500 acres in Cheshire, and a fortune estimated at $200 Million. Plus, he has the royal responsibility of holding the white wand of office for the State Opening of Parliament, where he receives the Crown of State and escorts the ruling sovereign into the House of Lords. Not your average working stiff.

Lord Cholmondeley has undertaken the responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of Houghton Hall, which has a checkered history of care. The family is still chafing at the 1779 sale of 204 paintings by spendthrift heirs of Sir Robert Walpole to Catherine the Great of Russia.

An unpretentious and gracious man, David, as he likes to be addressed, spoke seriously at the press preview I attended about the time, funds, details and responsibility being the guardian of his estate. He lives part time at Houghton, along with his wife and 4-year-old twin sons.

Although Houghton Hall is open to visitors from May–October, this exhibit is a wonderful treat and a grand opportunity to acquaint oneself with the gilded lives and accoutrements of English royalty.

Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2014. All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.