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Britain’s Lost Treasures Returned: How Houghton got its Art Back

Britain’s Lost Treasures Returned: How Houghton got its Art Back

Wed Aug 14, 9-10pm, BBC4

By Yolanda Zappaterra
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In the early eighteenth century, Britain’s first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, led the country from Norfolk’s Houghton Hall, a building created to house an art collection that not only reflected his love of art but his desire to make Britain a nation of art lovers. So successful was he that when his spendthrift nephew Mad George was forced to sell the collection to Catherine the Great in 1779, questions were raised in Parliament, the public outraged, and the press apoplectic.

With tales of art spies and adventure on the high seas, and fascinating details about the minutiae of the transaction – from the vilification of Catherine in the British press to how the collection helped this self-confessed art glutton turn Russia from a feudal society to an enlightened, modern one – this would be absorbing on anyone’s terms, but it doesn’t end there.

Equally interesting are how the current exhibition (on until 29 September) came together, and Dan Cruickshank’s clear love of the works; as he anxiously watches a painting being removed from the stuccoed ceiling of the Hermitage by a bunch of guys on scaffolding, we can’t help but share his pain, and the closing quarter, in which he explores the Houghton exhibition with genuine wonder, creates TV drama at its best. Delicious stuff.
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