Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House

By Karen Parr-Moody


Many antiques lovers are smitten with the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” currently set in 1924. It’s a visual feast replete with actors in period dress, from scullery maid to aristocratic lord. But the show’s star is the house itself, Highclere Castle, a manor home from 1878 that masquerades as the Grantham family manse.


While one has to travel to England to see Highclere, one may merely visit Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts to see more than 150 accoutrements of such a fine home. The exhibit “Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House” has them on view through May 10 (photo of the house, above).


Frist Center curator Katie Delmez says in a press release: “Through this exhibition, largely organized by room, visitors in Nashville will be able to experience Houghton’s interiors as if they were walking through the actual home in Norfolk and see sumptuous décor similar to what we enjoy watching on ‘Downton Abbey.’”


Construction on the 106-room, Palladian-style house began in 1722 with Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister. For the next few centuries, his eight generations of descendants both gained and lost treasures in the fine and decorative arts, creating the Houghton Hall of today. The seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, Lord David, currently resides with his young family in the home, which retains much of the original contents.


Many beautiful examples of Houghton Hall’s art and antiques are on view at The Frist, including the bespoke furniture of William Kent; paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent; and rare Sèvres snail-shaped potpourri vessels. 


Two pairs of the porcelain snails (“limaçons”) belonging to Houghton Hall are on view in the exhibit; one pair is green while the other is blue (photo, left). Mounted in ormolu gilt bronze, these potpourri vessels were made from 1763 to 1768 by the French manufacture nationale de Sèvres. Only a handful are still in existence (there is another pair at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Each vessel rests on conical feet done in a shell motif and has a circular lid topped with a finial in a shell motif surrounded by three smaller shells.


Madame du Barry Du Barry, the last Maîtresse-en-titre of Louis XV of France, once owned a pair of these beautiful, blue snails. She acquired them from the fashionable Paris shop of Simon-Philippe Poirier, A la Couronne d'Or, on Sept. 4, 1770. They were purchased to decorate the gallery of her château at Louveciennes. (We can only presume she enjoyed them for the two decades they decorated the château, before she was killed by a mob during the September Massacres of 1792.)


The clock, photo right, is signed “Charles Baltazar à Paris,” who was active before 1776. Many mid-18th century clocks of this sort are signed Baltazar, including an example in the Louvre. As with other such clocks, this one is done in the Louis XV style with gilded ormolu and a white enamel dial.


A group of “commedia dell'arte” – “comedy of skills” – figures perform atop the clock. Commedia dell’arte was an improvisational style of theater with roots in sixteenth-century Italy that was popular throughout Europe for another 200 years, as troupes of traveling actors roamed the land.


Born in 1894, Sybil Sassoon was a member of the famed Rothschild banking family (she is shown, left, in a 1913 painting by John Singer Sargent; it was a wedding gift). In 1913 she married the Earl of Rocksavage, who became the fifth Marquess of Cholmondeley in 1923, and she is credited for restoring Houghton Hall to its original grandeur.


Lady Sybil was a patron and friend of many artists, which led to new works arriving at the grand manor house. She also inherited many treasures for Houghton through her brother, collector Sir Philip Sassoon.  


Lady Sybil had a close association with the American painter John Singer Sargent, with whom she often played piano duets. He had painted her mother in 1907 and had sketched her own charcoal portrait in 1912. Sargent painted her again in 1913 in the oil portrait for Houghton, above, in which she wears a cashmere shawl he had given her (according to the book “Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil” by Peter Stansky). The last charcoal sketch that Sargent completed before his death, in 1925, was of Lady Sybil's daughter, Lady Aline Cholmondeley.


In the photo, right, is one of a pair of oil-gilt walnut side chairs in the exhibit; these chairs are attributed to Benjamin Goodison, the royal cabinetmaker to King George II. Sir Robert Walpole commissioned these chairs to line the walls of the State Apartment at Houghton around the end of 1731. With their silk-velvet upholstery, the chairs were meant to correspond with the green silk-velvet hangings of a magnificent state bed designed by William Kent.


(One of these chairs can be seen in a painting entitled “The Countess of Rocksavage and her Son” by Charles Sims; the detail of the painting, left, shows the chair’s cabriole legs terminating in ball-and-claw feet.)


The exhibit “Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House” is a spectacle of sumptuousness. Photographic murals paper the Frist Center’s walls to re-create key areas of the house. The concept is designed to evoke a feeling of walking through Houghton’s hall, dining room, library and more.


Best of all? One doesn’t have to travel one hundred miles northeast of London to see some of the finest treasures on earth.




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