The approach to Houghton Hall along the flat Fens, under broad, sweeping, luminous skies, is like coming to the ends of the Earth. A Palladian edifice, crowned with cupolas surmounted by gilded weather vanes, dramatically comes into view through avenues of lime trees, where white fallow deer freely roam. The restrained exterior of honeyed ochre Whitby stone, with its centrepiece of classical statues, betrays little of the sumptuous splendours within.
British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole commissioned the house between 1722 and 1735, when England was reaching its zenith in the worlds of art and architecture. Initially, the architect was James Gibbs with the subsequent input of Colen Campbell and Thomas Ripley, while the grand state rooms were lavishly decorated by William Kent. Read on for your own, exclusive tour…
The double height of the Stone Hall derives from Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House in Greenwich. Kent’s overall design is embellished by the sculptor JM Rysbrack and the great stuccadores, the Artari brothers. The Laocoön Group, depicting the Trojan priest and his sons being strangled by snakes, is a bronze cast of the original, which was rediscovered in 1506, and bought by Sir Robert’s son in Paris. The furniture in the Stone Hall consists of benches and side tables designed by William Kent.
The Library is dominated by a copy of Kneller’s portrait of King George I in a baroque frame designed by William Kent. The walls are lined with impressive mahogany bookcases, which Kent created to house Sir Robert’s extensive collection.
William Kent’s design for the great staircase was inspired by a Roman cortile. The walls are lined with canvases painted in grisaille by William Kent. The two main images are of Meleager and Atalanta in trompe l’oeil frames and surrounded by trophies emblematic of hunting. The centrepiece, which stands on a model of a Doric temple, is a bronze copy of the Borghese Gladiator made by Le Sueur after the original was unearthed in 1611. It was given to Sir Robert Walpole by the 8th Earl of Pembroke.
The Marble Parlour is dedicated to Bacchus – bunches of grapes are carved into the surround of Rysbrack’s fireplace, ceiling panels and cornices. The set of gilded chairs with eagle arms are probably based on the design of Queen Caroline’s coronation chair.
The elaborately gilded Saloon, with its crimson caffoy wallcoverings, was once densely hung with paintings until they were sold to Catherine the Great of Russia. Today, her portrait hangs over the chimney piece, a gift to the 3rd Earl at the time of the purchase.
The Common Parlour is one of the only original family rooms shown to visitors. The portrait over the mantelpiece is of Galfridus Walpole, Sir Robert’s brother whom he appointed joint paymaster general in 1721. The crimson damask chairs are original to the house, while the tapestry chairs once belonged to Sir Philip Sassoon, Sybil’s brother.
The walls of The Cabinet are lined with hand-painted wallpaper from China. The child’s bed is draped in Chinese embroidery, and was a present from George II and Queen Caroline.
The full feature on Houghton Hall by Celia Lyttelton appeared in the June issue of Homes and Antiques.
Photographs: Christopher Drake