On Saturday morning we headed northwards into the bleached, windswept expanse of East Anglian sky, stopping just short of the coast at Houghton Hall. It is an imposing facade, made more so by colonnaded arms stretching out to embrace two sizeable service wings, and by the gilded weathervanes that crown each domed corner of the central edifice. Despite the haha providing uninhibited views out to the distant countryside, and the informality of the ‘wilderness’ gardens, the parkland surrounding the house appears pleasingly formal, hedges clipped into geometrical lines creating a defined and majestic perspective that complements the strict Palladian proportions of the house.
William Kent was the mastermind behind the interior architectural design. The Stone Hall, devoid of distraction from the pale formality of stone and marble is testament to his skill and vision. Though restrained in his use of materials, Kent’s decorative impulse asserts itself with vigour in his frieze of frolicking putti who dance around the cornice, flanking portrait medallions of the Walpole family. In the centre of the ceiling the Walpole coat of arms is delineated in stuccowork, topped by the head of a Saracen; his tasselled cap lends him the look of a jester, lord of the revels who so animates the putti. Below, on a temporal level, all is sober classicism, with busts of Roman senators giving credence to Walpole’s claim to statemanship – the British prime minister appears all’antico, toga-clad above the fireplace, staring across at Girardon’s lifesize bronze copy of the quintessential antique sculpture, ‘Laocoon’.
The Common Parlour seems a demeaning epithet for a room full of masterpieces. Though perhaps it is an apposite context for a group of works depicting the worldly, human and everyday (in contrast to the religious and mythological subjects that dominate the saloon). Here are the Old Masters of Northern Europe and the great names of C17th British portraiture, from Van Dyck to Sir Peter Lely. The paintings are hung in a very satisfactory manner. Sir Godfrey Kneller – successor to Lely as court painter – claims pride of place in this arrangement; his portrait of Grinling Gibbons (c.1680s) is a weighty presence above the mantel, surrounded by that famed carver’s own exquisite gilded garlands in pear-wood. Flanking Gibbons are Kneller’s images of the Spanish poet and chaplain to Catherine of Braganza, Joseph Carreras, and John Locke (above right, 1697), gaunt and pensive with fine waves of grey hair (in contrast to Gibbons’s full face and stiff, curled wig). All are simply dressed, attention focused on their faces which are charged with expression, as they are seemingly caught in quiet contemplation. So too with the pair below the two Knellers; on the right of the fireplace, Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Elderly Lady’ (right, 1650s) who might almost be sitting by this parlour hearth, with a quiet, self-contained dignity, looking down at the flames and warming her careworn hands. Opposite, Frans Hals’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ (1646-8) turns to look at us, his thoughts interrupted – uncertain, indignant, curious? His lustrous black curls and silk sleeve, the rosy cheeks and double chin speak of a wealthy merchant class, yet beyond that we know nothing of this youth whom we have disturbed.
Facing each other on the far wall are Velazquez’s ‘Pope Innocent X’ (above left, c.1650) and Rubens’s ‘Head of a Franciscan Monk’ (above right, 1617-19). Velazquez may be the Southern interloper here but how perfectly matched these two are, an intense gaze spearing you from either side, and firm set lips signifying an unshakeable belief in their spiritual or temporal power and authority.
To offset the line-up of personalities, famous and anonymous, is David Teniers II’s archetypal Dutch genre piece ‘Kitchen’ (1646), which dominates the far wall. In this cavernous space multiple mini-dramas are played out, as the fresh catch is brought in and the preparations begin. Allegories of the four elements have been discerned here; the cabbages and rabbits of the earth lying in one Chardin-esque still life to the bottom left, the birds of the air strung up above, the fire of the range burning in the room beyond, and the fish – out of water – in the bottom right of the composition. Is that the master of the house standing proudly with feathered cap and falcon on the left, his hunting dogs keeping obediently to heel? As he inspects the day’s catch two peasants are led towards him, dragging or carrying enormous fish, an offering to their overlord.
On the other side of the Stone Hall, the Marble Parlour is the alter ego of the Common Parlour. Here there was to be feasting and entertainment as opposed to study and contemplation; and subsequently the fireplace is adorned not with oak leaves but with copious vines dripping with ripe white marble grapes – with above them Rysbrack’s marble relief, ‘The Sacrifice to Bacchus’. In place of the sober men of arts and letters, we have two swaggering full-length portraits of a soldier and a politician by Van Dyck, colourful, theatrical and imperious.
Of the series of bedchambers, the final one stands out with its eponymous Green Velvet state bed, another Kent design with a double shell motif stretching majestically up the headboard almost to the full height of fifteen feet (above). The walls are clothed in Flemish tapestries, with animated scenes of Venus and various lovers in colours as bright as a Bellini painting.
Beyond this there is an entire room – originally designated a drawing-room – dedicated to Carlo Maratta, an artist now almost unknown. It is extraordinary how an artist can undergo such reversals of fortune, particularly when his subjects and style are so timeless. Indeed, after Bernini’s death in 1680 Maratta became the leading artist in Rome, and popular with English visitors on the Grand Tour – so how did his reputation vanish between then and now? The rehanging of the Carlo Maratta room at Houghton certainly goes some way to remedying this fault, with a ‘Virgin & Child with St John the Baptist’ (above right, late C17th) that fully justifies the painter’s epithet, ‘Carluccio delle Madonne’. The baby Jesus thankfully looks and behaves as a baby ought, while Mary is both maternal and graceful, with gentle gestures and a loving glance; it is one of the most natural – and therefore affecting – images of its genre that I have seen.
Maratta’s ‘Portrait of Pope Clement IX’ (left, 1669) sits in pontifical splendour above the fireplace. Not quite so saturated in red velvet, nor with quite such despotic frown and beady eye as Velazquez’s infamous Innocent X, nevertheless Maratta’s pope is in every other particular equally imposing and magnificent.
Accompanying Maratta’s work are some beautiful religious scenes by Murillo. On a more intimate scale and therefore somehow more immediate and human, ‘The Flight into Egypt’ (below right, 1680s) and ‘The Crucifixion’
(1675-80) hang on either side of the fireplace; here there is none of the Catholic excess of plump winged cherubs and ecstatic spiritual apotheosis of Murillo’s ‘Walpole Immaculate Conception’ (c.1680) next door in the Saloon.
But the Murillo is only the most diminutive of the triumphant artistic pageant that strides across the crimson velvet ‘caffoy’ wall-coverings of the Saloon. Luca Giordano’s huge canvases dominate the room, with his ‘Sleeping Bacchus’ and ‘Judgement of Paris’ stretching right out from either side of the central doorway to the ends of the wall – though his slightly smaller ‘Vulcan’s Forge’ (left, 1657-60) is more powerful and concisely composed than these. Harsh, fiery, black and red hues and a carefully constructed interplay of rippling muscled limbs convey the heat, the effort and the controlled, syncopated movements of the men’s bodies which are the essential elements within this energetic scene of creation.
Above the fireplace – of a very fine yellow-flecked black marble – is Salvator Rosa’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ (right, early 1650s). Silent and still, in contrast to the strong contrapposto action of the men in the forge, the size and simplicity renders this painting striking, even monumental.
The collection exhibited here, as it was originally intended, is extraordinary in the completeness of its vision. Sir Robert Walpole and William Kent between them created a quite uniquely unified design encompassing all interior elements from ceiling painting to plasterwork, and from carved overdoors to fireplaces, chairs and stools, with the theme or effect they desired matched in the intelligent placing of carefully chosen paintings and sculpture. A rare chance to step back in time. And then to fast-forward again, rapidly – for the grounds are punctuated with contemporary ‘landscape’ art…