Video and picture gallery: Farewell to priceless paintings as they make their way from Houghton Hall back to Russia

The painting in creates waiting to be loaded in to a lorry in the Marble Hall at Houghton Hall, as the Houghton Revisited exhibition comes to an end. Picture: Matthew Usher. The painting in creates waiting to be loaded in to a lorry in the Marble Hall at Houghton Hall, as the Houghton Revisited exhibition comes to an end. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Monday, December 2, 2013
12:34 PM

They attracted more than 100,000 visitors from all over the world and put a stately home in rural Norfolk firmly on the artistic map.

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But now the priceless collection of 100 paintings which has adorned Houghton Hall, near Fakenham, this year is being taken down and prepared for its journey back home to Russia.

Experts from both Russia and the UK are now in the middle of carefully carrying out the highly complicated task as the county says farewell to the collection, regarded as one of the finest in the world, which was owned by Britain’s first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole 200 years ago when he lived at Houghton Hall.

It was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia two generations later and brought back to Houghton Hall

for the sensational Houghton Revisited exhibition, which ran for six months and attracted some 115,000 visitors.

Since the exhibition finished, the intricate work of taking down the stunning pieces from great artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Velasquez has been undertaken with great care and attention to detail.

That work is continuing this week and involves the paintings being placed carefully into crates, each of which has been designed specifically for each painting.

Exhibition organiser Sue Thompson said: “Some of the largest pieces can take a whole day to be removed from the walls.

“They can’t be taken down the stairs so have to be taken out of the windows. In the crates they can weigh up to half a tonne, so scaffolding is erected outside to take them down.”

Each piece is thoroughly checked to ensure it is in the same condition as it was when it arrived at Houghton Hall.

The works are to be transported in trucks, which have temperature and humidity set to a specific level, then ferried to Russia.

When they arrive, they will be left for 24 to 48 hours to acclimatise in their new surroundings until they are remounted on to the walls of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, from where the majority of the collection has been loaned, and other museums.

The Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall’s current owner, said: “Taking the collection down and returning it to Russia is incredibly complicated and everyone has to be so careful with everything to make sure there is no possibility of damage.

“We are fortunate that we have some great people doing a brilliant job on it.

“I am also so pleased that the Hermitage Museum and the other museums put the trust in us to do this and to extend the exhibition beyond its original closing date in September.”

The collection’s triumphant return to Houghton Hall has been a long-held ambition of Lord Cholmondeley, who is a descendant of Walpole through marriage.

He said: “It feels very strange at the moment. I feel obvious sadness to see this collection leave – it will never return in our lifetimes.

“But it will be nice to have the home back to how it was.”

Houghton Hall has been granted official Museum Status following the exhibition and Lord Cholmondeley said many future events were being discussed.

He said: “I have nothing official to announce yet but we are looking at bringing in something more contemporary next.”

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