From 28 September 2018, the exhibition “Robert Walpole and His Collection” is running in the Menshikov Palace. The display comprises a portrait of Robert Walpole by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo, the engraved two-volume publication Houghton Gallery and twenty-one prints from that publication on separate sheets.
Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), the first Earl of Orford and leader of the English Whigs, is best known as Britain’s first prime minister. He became a member of parliament in 1702 and soon attracted attention in the House of Commons with his intelligent, clear and persuasive speeches. At that time, he grew close to young influential members of the Whig faction and by 1704 had become one of their leaders. However, Queen Anne, tired of the long War of the Spanish Succession, began to give preference to the Tory party that had taken a stance against that conflict. After a Tory election victory, Walpole was removed from his high offices of state and fell into deep disfavour. In 1712, he was even impeached for corruption during his time as Minister of War and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. The following year, though, he was re-elected to parliament and with the succession of the Hanoverian King George I in 1714, the government was again firmly in the hands of the Whigs. Robert Walpole’s career really took off. Soon, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury, as well as being leader of the House of Commons. For the last seven years of his tenure as head of the cabinet, Walpole was under constant attack from the strengthening opposition, especially one of its leaders, the young statesman William Pitt. With powerful forces ranged against him, Walpole was forced to resign in 1742.
Robert Walpole was a passionate collector of works of art. A gentleman of his standing was in any case simply obliged to put together a “noble collection” that would serve as an indication of his status and successfulness, even if he had no inclination for it. He began to buy paintings as early as 1718, while he was in opposition to the cabinet of the day and held no high office of state. The growth of his power and financial resources in the years that followed enabled him to put together an exceptional collection the equal of which it would have been difficult to find not only in Britain, but anywhere else as well. By 1736 the collection already contained around 400 paintings, the majority of which were housed in his family residence, Houghton Hall in Norfolk.
The collection became widely known thanks to the efforts of Sir Robert’s youngest son Horace Walpole (1717–1797). He compiled a description of the art collection that he managed to complete shortly before his father’s death in 1745. The very title given to the catalogue – Aedes Walpolianae (“The Walpole Sanctuary”) – indicates that Horace regarded Houghton Hall and the masterpieces housed there as a sort of monument to Sir Robert’s deeds. The catalogue was published in 1748 and until the end of the century it served as a model for all descriptions of art collections owned by the English aristocracy.
After Robert Walpole’s death, the former prime minister’s title, estates and collections, but also debts that had reached 50,000 pounds, passed to his eldest son, also Robert, and then to his grandson George. They auctioned off those paintings that had not been brought to Houghton in their time, but this did not bring in much money, which for a long time put George Walpole off the idea of correcting his finances by selling art treasures and allowed the collection to survive unchanged for another quarter-century. In 1778, however, George finally did unexpectedly resolve to part with his grandfather’s collection, offering it to the Russian Empress Catherine II. The negotiations, which were conducted in the strictest secrecy, ended in 1779 with the purchase of 209 works from Houghton Hall for the sum of 40,000 pounds sterling. This caused a great stir in British society. After all, for the British Russia was an exotic and uncivilized country and Catherine was a despotic ruler invested with unrestricted power. Nevertheless, late in 1779 the collection was delivered safely to Saint Petersburg, where it soon occupied a worthy place among the other acquisitions in the Hermitage.
Together with the celebrated collection, a depiction of its first owner was also sent to Russia. The Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford (State Hermitage, St Petersburg) was painted by a member of a famous dynasty of French painters with Dutch roots, near the end of his time as prime minister, as is indicated by the signature on the bottom right, at the base of the column: F.P.J.B. Vanloo 1740. Jean-Baptiste Van Loo (1684–1745) was known for works in a variety of genres, but most famed for his portraiture. In 1738 Walpole commissioned a half-length portrait from him that is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The client was completely satisfied with the likeness and after a time he decided to have a full-length portrait made. Since the existing depiction completely suited Sir Robert, the artist simply repeated it, adding the extra elements to the formal portrait and the corresponding robes of the chancellor with the Order of the Garter. A place was immediately found for the picture in the Blue Bedroom at Houghton Hall.
Walpole’s collection continued to be one of the best in Britain right up until the moment of its sale. This is demonstrated by the illustrated publication known by the short title “Houghton Gallery”, engravings from which are presented in the exhibition. Created in 1774–88 by the famous London engraver and publisher John Boydell (1720–1804), it included 129 prints made by such talented artists as Richard Earlom, Valentine Green, William Walker and Jean-Baptiste Michel. By way of a commentary on the paintings reproduced, Boydell included the description of the collection from Horace Walpole’s Aedes Walpolianae. The publication of the engravings was completed after the paintings arrived in Russia, a fact reflected in its final title: A Set of Prints Engraved after the Most Capital Paintings in the Collection of Her Imperial Majesty the Empress of Russia, Lately in the Possession of the Earl of Orford at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. The engravings are intended to recall Robert Walpole’s artistic preferences and the diversity of genres in his collection, where large paintings by 17th-century Italian masters coexisted with cosy “cabinet” pictures, and works on historical subjects and profound allegories with everyday scenes and portraits of the powerful statesman’s favourite dogs.
The exhibition curators are Yekaterina Vadimovna Deriabina, senior researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art, and Sergei Sergeyevich Orekhov, researcher in the same department.