Great old master paintings in danger of leaving Britain, questions asked in parliament, vastly wealthy Russians, greedy politicians — it all sounds extremely contemporary.
Those were the ingredients of the first great art export controversy in 1779. Many of the pictures in question have just returned to Houghton Hall, the English country house from which they were sold 234 years ago.
There’s another twist: this was the collection put together by Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Britain’s first prime minister was effectively the inventor of the office and held it for an impressive 21 years, later living at 10 Downing Street. He was, it may come as no surprise to read, an Etonian.
Walpole came to power in the aftermath of one of the first great market collapses in the history of capitalism, the South Sea Bubble. He avoided foreign wars and kept taxes low, helping his popularity, though it later ebbed after he increased duty on tobacco and gin.
He was only a middle-income Norfolk squire in origin, yet found enough money to rebuild his house on a grand scale (which involved moving an entire village), and to fill it with a spectacular array of art.
Quite how he managed this on his ministerial salary isn’t clear. It’s true that he originated the axiom “every man has his price.” But he said it about his opponents, not himself. One consequence was that Walpole ended up heavily in debt.
Move on half a century, and his grandson the 3rd Earl of Orford was obliged to sell the best of the pictures. The deal was done by James Christie, founder of the auction house, and the buyer was one of the keenest art collectors in the late 18th-century world: Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.
Eventually she bought 204 pictures for a fairly modest 40,555 pounds (a little less than the total of Robert Walpole’s debts at his death). Of these, 70, by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck, have been brought back to the rooms in which they originally hung.
The Houghton sale was far from the last time that a British country house was emptied of great works in this way. In fact it’s still happening today. It just shows how much art accumulated in the stately homes of England to begin with. The sale of the Walpole collection was the first such drama.
It caused consternation. Josiah Wedgewood, the potter (who had created an imperial dinner service for Catherine), was filled with gloom. Clearly, he thought, this showed Britain had begun to decline. “Russia is sacking our palaces and museums,” he said.
The great radical political John Wilkes stood up in the House of Commons and suggested the collection should be bought for the nation to form the basis of a national gallery (to be housed at the British Museum). As it happened, it was almost half a century before the National Gallery of London was founded in 1824. Still, the idea had been born.
There was controversy about the sale right to the end. A rumor spread that the ship carrying the Houghton pictures to St Petersburg had sunk with all its cargo. Catherine’s art adviser heard another whisper that at the last minute the deal had not gone through, but she put him right.
“The Walpole pictures are no longer available,” she said, “for the simple reason that your humble servant has already got her claws into them, and would no more let them go than a cat would a mouse”.
Spoken like a true collector.
First published on Bloomberg.com