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Speaking notes of Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko at the Preview Reception on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition "Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great's Hermitage" 25 April 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am glad to welcome you at today's preview reception on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition "Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great's Hermitage."

This exhibition is dedicated to the 250th anniversary of the State Hermitage in 2014.

The acquisition of Walpole's art collection in 1779, described by his contemporaries as "the most celebrated in England", was a major event in the history of the Hermitage - the Imperial gallery was expanded by outstanding works of European masters of the 17th century.

Its founder Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford was the First Prime Minister of Britain during the rule of Kings George I and George II. Sir Robert Walpole entered Parliament in 1701 at the age of 25 and became Britain's Prime Minister in 1721. He held office through to his retirement in 1742 and served in the House of Lords until his death. An outstanding political and public figure, he was one of the most significant European art collectors; the collection of Sir Robert Walpole perfectly reflected an early 18th-century English collector's taste. Originally the numerous artistic treasures were kept in Prime Minister's London houses, including the official residence in Downing Street. After his retirement, Sir Robert moved best part of his collection in Houghton Hall, his country house in Norfolk.

Rebuilt in the Palladian style after the plan of Britain's leading architects - Colin Campbell and James Gibbs - the house was specially designed to accommodate this art collection. The interiors and decor created by William Kent have been preserved to our time.

Robert Walpole's younger son, writer Horatio Walpole saw conservation of his father's collection for the nation as the purpose of his life. In 1752, he issued a comprehensive catalogue of the collection, which was extensively annotated. However, strained circumstances of the descendants played a key role in the collection's destiny. In late 1778 an immediate heir, grandson George Walpole, burdened with debts, offered his collection for sale to Catherine the Great. Russian Envoy to London, Alexey Musin- Pushkin, reported to the Empress the matter in the following manner: “Prime Minister took all the opportunities his long stay in office presented to make the gallery as beautiful as complete. His grandson, Lord Orford, takes the liberty to bring it in full or in part to the feet of Your Imperial Majesty. All art connoisseurs agree that it deserves to belong to the world's greatest sovereign.”

The news of George's intention to sell the famous collection of his grandfather to the Russian Empress caused a great scandal in the English society. Members of Parliament suggested purchasing "one of the most beautiful collections in Europe" and establishing National Gallery on its basis. Yet, MPs failed to put the idea into practice – Decree of Her Imperial Majesty Catherine the Great authorising the purchase followed shortly in February 1779. The whole collection, of 204 paintings, with the exception of family portraits and sculptures, was bought at a cost of 40,555 pounds. The paintings packed in boxes were delivered to St Petersburg in autumn 1779 by "two best ships" under the guard of a frigate.

The Walpole collection brought some significant, large scale works of the 17th century masters into the Imperial gallery of Hermitage.

Catherine the Great, and, indeed, Sir Robert Walpole, realised that art collecting is a matter of state importance that enhances the prestige of the country and improves its international image. Thanks to the effort and knowledge of her envoys and her personal passion for collecting from the time of her ascension to the throne in 1762, the Empress successfully purchased a number of outstanding European art collections.

The purchase of the Walpole collection had as paramount importance for the establishment of the Hermitage gallery as was the acquisition of Baron Pierre Crozat's collection. Russian art historian Vladimir Levinson-Lessing, the author of an outstanding study on the history of the Hermitage Museum, described the purchase of the Walpole collection as "a major event in the life of the Hermitage".

At present, 126 works of the Walpole collection are reposited in the Hermitage Museum. 15 canvasses are kept in Moscow's museums, 21 of them are in various museums of Russia and Ukraine, while yet another six canvases were sold abroad in the 1930-ies; part of the paintings, which had been kept in St Petersburg suburban palaces, museums, was lost during the Nazi occupation during WWII. The fate of 36 canvasses from the British collector's gallery remains unknown. The portrait of George I by Godfrey Kneller and John Wootton, which had been kept in the Great Gatchina Palace near St Petersburg and was considered missing, was returned to Russia by the German government in 2002.

I wouldn’t dwell on particular works comprising the collection. You’ll see those for yourselves. What is important, however, that is the cultural and historical connection between Russia and Britain this story came to symbolize. That is what we are making now. That is what, I am sure, we’ll last till the end of time. Thank you.


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