Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Houghton Revisited

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join a party from the Oxford Oratory on a visit to Houghton Hall, the Norfolk house of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, the Joint Hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England. Houghton was built for Sir Robert Walpole, and intended to display the art collection he haas built up. Later in the century the family fell on hard times and in 1779 sold much of their collection to the Empress Catherine II, who transferred it to the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

This year the paintings have been returned to their former home for a few months in an exhibition entitled Houghton Revisited. The website for this can be seen here. In addition to this opportunity to see the sixty paintings there was the additional interest that the exhibition curator, Dr Thierry Morel, is an old friend from Oriel.

I had visited Houghton before, but this was a unique opportunity to see the Walpole collection back in the splendid Palladian house designed by Colen Campbell, James Gibbs and William Kent to accommodate the family and their pictures.

The collection is really splendid, and I woukld urge anyone interested to go and see it while they have the opportunity. Despite travelling to Russia, and its winters, the Napoleeonic invasion, the 1917 revolution, Soviet rule, the Second World War and the fall of communism the pictures are in wonderful condition - only one Rubens' portrait of his second wife Helena was too fragile to travel - and gleaming in their gilt frames they hang once more in the rooms built to hous e them.

One thing that strikes the visitor are the number of Catholic devotional images assembled by the quintessential Whig Prime Minister Walpole - whatever the politics of the age he clearly appreciated the skill of painters from the Baroque, and especially the now rather overlooked Carlo Maratta.

The ones which caught my eye especially were some of the portraits - I suppose that is the historian in me. Four stand out.

Firstly I noted a  small portrait by Velasquez of Pope Innocent X that conveys both the authority of the better known portraits of the Pope by this artist, but also a gentler humanity in the eyes that is strking. From that oil sketch I would move on to a much grander composition:

Pope Clement IX in 1669
Carlo Maratta (1625-1713)


The other two, facing each other in the dining room, are wonderful examples of the work of  Van Dyke and capture the atmosphere of the court of King Charles I - elegant, but also teetering on the edge of crisis:

Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby KG
Sir Anthony van Dyke (1599-1641), painted after 1633

Image: wikipaintings

The Earl, born in 1573 and who died in 1643/4, and  who was, incidentally, the founder of the Oxford Botanic Garden had a somewhat turbulent career, as can be read here.
His younger contemporary, Capt the Hon Sir Thomas Wharton, appears as a young rather dour Calvinistic military man, who as a moderate Royalist survived the Civil War and Commonwealth to become a landowner in my home area at Edlington near Doncaster -there is more about him at Sir Thomas Wharton (c.1615-84), of Edlington, Yorks:

Anthony van Dyck - Portrait of Sir Thomas Wharton, 1639

Capt. Sir Thomas Wharton KB in 1639

Image: arthistory.about.com

The exhibition has now been extended to November 24th.  
There is an online article from the Daily Telegraph about the exhibition at their website entitled

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