Thursday 21 November 2013

To Houghton, for the day see Catherine the Great's pictures. Or, such of them as she'd bought from Robert Walpole's impecunious grandson sometime around 1790, at any rate. Back for the summer, while they did some redecorating in The Hermitage, it was a chance to see Walpole's collection hanging in exactly the places where he had chosen to put each of them, and exactly as he had enjoyed them when he lived in the house. It seemed a good idea to take a look while we could - although, unfortunate that the World and his wife, along with quite a few of their friends and relations appeared to have had the same idea.

Walpole junior had sold the pictures for the princely sum of £40,000. And Gary, our voluble taxi driver on a journey from the station at King's Lynn, the price of which threatened to rival the value of the pictures, opined that she'd got them cheap at the price. I'm not sure what Gary's bone fides are as a player in the Art Market, but I suspect he'd do well to stick to the day job. There are some excellent Van Dycks, a good Velasquez, a Lely, a Franz Hals....and after that, it starts to run out of steam. The Rembrandt is good, but not major; a beautiful, if slightly knocked-about del Sarto; a Murillo, good if you like that sort of thing (I don't; I find him mawkish); and a claimed 'Veronese' about which they ought to feel deeply embarrassed - it doesn't even come close to 'school of', and the fact that one can see it referred to in Walpole's own hand as Veronese speaks volumes for how much he actually knew about the subject.

It was thrilling to see them in situ from Walpole's time - knowing that it was a once in a lifetime chance to do so, at any rate. If they were there all the time and always hanging in those places, though,  I suspect the 'Walpole had them hanging exactly like this' element would become relatively uninteresting.

The house is a gem. English palladianism at its most complete. I've known it from pictures practically forever, but never before made the trek to go and see it in the flesh.  Campbell's harmonious proportions sing perfectly, and are impaired in no way by the leaden hand of William Kent as it blunders heavily across various ceiling treatments and decorative schemes within the house. The views through the windows are of avenues stretching off through parkland flecked with Gainsborough trees, and in the distance, glimpses of his Lordship's herd of white deer. Presumably, also unchanged pretty much since Walpole looked upon them. Personally, I decided after we'd been there for an hour or so, I would go stir-crazy if I actually had to live there (possibly, an entire weekend would be chancing it, even) as the lone and level landscape which stretches emptily away into the distance in all directions does so with so little drama of any kind that one could easily lose the will to live if one had to look upon it for too long.  It has been remarked before, and with good reason, that it is ''very flat, Norfolk". And I suspect not just topographically.

We traipsed the park, even as far as a rather pleasing garden pavilion that looked like the temple of the four winds, and was unsurprisingly firmly locked; admired the haha; considered the new-ish shrubberies (fortunately, not realising until I google-earthed it subsequently that part of the planting can be seen from above to be a facsimile of the present Lord Cholmondely's grandmother's signature); gave the once-over, with varying degrees of scepticism, to his Lordship's embryonic collection of garden sculpture; ...and we visited the walled garden. Which would have been worth the journey from London all on its own. Five acres (apparently) of no-holds-barred garden creation that would gladden the eye and quicken the pulse of any aspiring gardener. Oh, there are some things to criticise - the vistas don't draw the eye to their end points; the overall plan resembles a hotel corridor with a series of rooms  opening off it, rather than tantalising and leading you on, and round corners,  tempting the visitor endlessly on to something only half-viewed; there is an absence of an overall concept to give coherence to the entire design - but all of that is mere perfectionist nit-picking. The roses... the yew hedges...the greeenhouses...the fountains... the pergolas... the  borders...the scale...we only saw about half of it, before we realised Gary would already be waiting for us up by the stables, to return us to King's Lynn and all points South.

Partly in an attempt to forestall Gary's views on the Walpole artwork, which I suspected might be extensive, I praised the garden enthusiastically as we climbed back into the car. As a tactic, it couldn't have been bettered, as Gary responded merely with a grunt, before he lapsed into silence. Gary, it seems, didn't have any opinions about the gardens. Which, although surprising, was not unwelcome.

And we made the entire journey back to the station in companionable, tired-but-happy, end-of-a-day-well-spent silence.

Tonight's Dinner:

Savoury Clafoutis (with gorgonzola and prosciutto)

Young lamb, pot roast over leeks and tomatoes.

Apple and Vanilla Tarts.