The Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House, a remarkable assemblage of paintings, furniture, porcelain, silver, costumes and other decorative arts from the 18th-century Norfolk estate of England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Concluding its landmark tour of the U.S., the exhibition will be on view in the Center’s Ingram Gallery from February 13 through May 10, 2015.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in collaboration with Houghton Hall, the exhibition features more than 150 objects that tell a captivating story of three centuries of British art, history and politics. Many of the objects will be presented in vignettes with large-scale photographic murals designed to re-create the key architectural spaces of the house, such as the impressive Stone Hall, with its white marble ornamentation; the gilded Saloon, covered in crimson velvet; the Marble Parlour dining room, dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus; and the mahogany-paneled Library.
The house’s extravagant design and furnishings—chiefly of the Palladian style—were meant to reflect the social and cultural aspirations of its owner, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), and were a testament to his sophistication and wealth as well as to his new position in government. In reference to the dual nature of the country house, a contemporary of Walpole’s described the ground floor as “dedicated to fox-hunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business,” and the state floor as a tribute to “taste, expense, state and parade.”
Assembled by eight generations of Walpole’s descendants, including the seventh and current Marquess of Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), the objects on view offer a rare glimpse into the private interior of one of Britain’s grandest country houses. “Houghton Hall is indeed remarkable because it was one of the first homes in Britain in which the architecture, furnishings, art, and gardens were fully integrated,” says Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez. “Through this exhibition, largely organized by room, visitors in Nashville will be able to experience Houghton’s interiors as if they were walking through the actual home in Norfolk and see sumptuous décor similar to what we enjoy watching on Downton Abbey.”
Highlights of the exhibition include family portraits by William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent; Sèvres porcelain and Garrard silver; and furniture designed by one of the stars of the exhibition, William Kent. “Kent is credited with transforming the look of a nation,” Ms. Delmez says. “Although a majority of his work was influenced by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, he brought a fresh style to Georgian England that did not look Continental European.” Houghton was one of the first homes in which Kent took a holistic design approach, considering everything from the chimney surrounds to the ceilings to the furniture to the way the paintings were hung. “He is celebrated for creating a fully unified design scheme in his buildings in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright would work two hundred years later in America.”
Although Houghton Hall is renowned for its design cohesiveness, the collections have evolved over time with the addition of new objects. “Each generation of residents brought into the house various items of interest to them, and Houghton in the 21st century reflects this family history and tradition of collecting,” Ms. Delmez says. “Many family members collected Sèvres porcelain, for example, so there are numerous examples spanning a wide time period on view.” Seen together, the items in the exhibition demonstrate the rarified taste and access to great makers that such aristocrats had.