It’s always tempting to take a look into the neighbours’ house, especially when it’s a bit bigger than yours. So it was with some enthusiasm that I joined those popping into Houghton Hall in North-West Norfolk, to see how the Cholmondeleys furnished their rooms.
It was a bit of a special occasion, as the Cholmondeleys had borrowed a few pictures to spice the place up and called it Houghton Hall Revisited, even though I hadn’t been before. The pictures came from Russia and were returning temporarily to their original home, thus presumably making them homing pictures.
The current owner of Houghton Hall is a descendant of Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who first collected the pictures. They were acquired in the 18th century by Catherine the Great when the Walpoles ran desperately short of money – a common problem at the time, when top people pulled out all of the stops in the eternal cause of impressing each other.
To be honest, I was less impressed by the pictures – excepting the odd Rembrandt and Poussin – than I was with the ceilings. This is not something I say very often. I am quite capable of spending a whole day in a house without noticing the ceilings at all. But these were exceptional ceilings, and if you go to Houghton Hall I recommend looking up.
The walls and furnishings are impressive too – almost as impressive as the price asked in the cafe for a piece of cake and bottle of lemonade, though I guess transporting pictures from Russia to England must be a little pricey, especially as they almost certainly came first class, or even Special Delivery.
Houghton Hall is, truth to tell, a magnificent building in a superb setting. After touring the interior, we walked in the grounds. It was raining lightly, and the sculptures shone in the sunlight. A mole started to emerge from the ground, then changed its mind. Looking back, we saw a rainbow arching over the hall.
And then we found James Turrell’s Skyspace – a magical building with a square open to the sky and benches for meditation. Now that’s something I’d like in my garden. Of course, I’d have to demolish the house.