My favourite museums are house museums. I really do not know how many times I have been to Hearst Castle, but I know I have no plans to ever stop visiting. I love to see where and how people lived. Second to this — especially for private residences still in use — are exhibitions about such grand homes and estates. Having been a lifelong reader and lover of Jane Austen, I suppose this isn’t a surprise. Thus, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House was an absolute dream of an exhibition for me.
The exhibition, which is open until January 18, 2015 at the Legion of Honor, draws from the collection of quite possibly the original English country house — read ginormous mansion — Houghton (pronounced ‘how-ton’) Hall. The house was built by England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (known as Cock Robin by those who didn’t like him). Walpole can also be credited with starting the trend for magnificent country estates that then swept Britain; until Walpole the Pemberleys, Kellynches, and Hartfields that serve as the backgrounds of Jane Austen’s novels didn’t exist. The Legion of Honor’s exhibition allows visitors an inside look at not only the current Houghton Hall, but insights into its creation, history, and survival tot he present day.
Through the use of high-resolution prints of wallpaper, ceilings, library bookshelves, etc., and the arrangement of those objects — paintings, ceramics, furniture — the Legion of Honor transformed its special exhibition space and recreated the rooms the exhibition focused on quite well. Beginning with the opulent red damask and gilded Saloon (below), the exhibition established fully in the minds of museum visitors what homes like this were built and decorated to do: show off to Walpole’s fellow members of parliament and aristocrats, and his political rivals who had the most money and taste.
Interspersed among the tombstones and wall text — which outlined the history of the home from room to room — were family trees which helped visitors trace the family and how the family titles changed as they were added to. Since they started out as the Earls of Orford, the wall texts were remarkably helpful in determining how they became the Marquesses of Cholmondeley (pronounced “chumdley” apparently) as people married or inherited other estates. However, most fascinating was the history of each room and its building and renovation since these little histories showed how the house evolved not only with the trends and styles of successive generations, but with the tastes and needs of the family as well. Not to mention the insights such histories gave into the way in which homes were decorated and built from 1720 until the most recent renovations and revivals in the early 20th century.
What I was most fascinated by were the original plans, drawings, and perspectives created by architect William Kent and his various successors, for the building and decorating of the house. Even the placement of paintings was thought of by the various architects as can be seen in the various drawings on display. Since my internship during my master’s degree was working with a similar private collection of architectural drawings, I felt like with my background they gave me more insight into the home and its history — but also added depth to the exhibition for the “novice” visitor as well, as I overheard various fellow visitors remark on the plans.
In the “library” room, they had several books on display from Sir Robert Walpole’s own collection — including secret dossiers from security meetings during Walpole’s tenure as prime minister in the first half of the eighteenth century.
There were three objects in the exhibition that I found most beautiful and incredible. First were the intact rolls of chinoiserie wallpaper that decorates the “Cabinet” seen in the image above. Four such rolls were hung on the walls of the room meant to recreate the “Cabinet,” in absolutely pristine condition. Nothing was said about why the wallpaper was still in existence, let alone in such excellent condition, but I can only assume it was extra from when the room was decorated and that it was originally kept “just in case” of need to replace the original. To have not a photo recreation, but the original wallpaper as it must have come from the manufacturer was truly wonderful, indeed.
Second were Jean Singer Sargent’s portraits of the woman responsible for Houghton’s preservation and survival in this century, the current Marquess of Cholmondeley’s grandmother, Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley. Her mother having been a Rothschild, her father a Sassoon, and marrying the Marquess, Lady Sybil had the means and the inclination to restore the home. She became fascinated by its history and its original builder, Sir Robert Walpole, and it is no overstating it (if the wall text, catalogue, and video interviewing her grandson are to be believed) that she ensured this beautiful home’s survival. Sargent’s portraits of the Marchioness is are arresting in their beauty — not merely because of Sargent’s skill, but because of Lady Sybil’s unique, striking beauty and bold, avant-garde way of dressing for the portraits. The one below is apparently the result of her not having anything she considered suitable to wear for her engagement portrait, and so the great artist went to his “dressing up box” in his studio and draped her in a beautiful gold fabric he found there.
Last but not least on an academic fashion blog, the exhibition ended with a “bang,” if you will: displayed on two mannequins the coronation robes that the 4th Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, wore to the coronations of Kings Edward VII and George V. Complete with crimson silk velvet, gold braid, and ermine train.
Only the Marquess’s costume is shown above, but also on display was the Cecil Beaton portrait of Lady Sybil and her husband George, when they were the 5th Marquess and Marchioness, similarly attired for the coronations of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.
The exhibition did have its failings. The layout was somewhat illogical and hard to follow, with very few of the rooms seeming to flow into one another in any logical path — the first room recreating the Saloon seemed to lead into the last room and exhibition shop instead of onto the rest of the exhibition. The library in particular was awkwardly placed, off to the side and exiting all over again if you didn’t double back to the rest of the exhibition space. This is partially simply the nature of the Legion of Honor’s special exhibition space, but I can’t help feeling that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — which has used the space magnificently in the past — could have laid things out in a way that would not confuse visitors. The tombstones and much of the wall text were also frequently too small and placed in such a way that you had to get dangerously close to the objects themselves to read the plaques and see what you were looking at. I did not envy the gallery attendants their jobs in the recreation of the “Cabinet” where in order to read the tombstones for them, you had to lean over the eighteenth-century, lacquered card tables in a rather precarious way, since on either side of you were glass cases and other visitors.
Overall, the exhibition was wonderful, and did exactly what it aimed to do: recreated not just Houghton Hall, but gave visitors insights into and an understanding of the world of the English country house.
Have any of you been to see Houghton Hall? What were your thoughts? What house museums and similar exhibitions do you enjoy? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments. You can also leave me information about upcoming events and exhibitions in your area, or you can email them to me.
Opening Image Caption: A view of the Stone Hall at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell