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When you think of all time great comebacks what do you think of? In sporting terms you might think of the Ryder Cup last year or Oracle Team USA winning this year’s Americas Cup.

Great comebacks in art are perhaps harder to recall. Going back to the early 16th Century, Michelangelo fled Rome for Florence after a fall-out with the Pope. He was persuaded to return by his forgiving patron, painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the rest… is history. Great comeback from Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling - a great comeback from Michelangelo

The Sistine Chapel ceiling – a great comeback from Michelangelo

Another great art comeback has happened this year; one that has been nearly 250 years in the making. Like many comebacks this one was fleeting; an emotional return before a final departure. It has occurred in that corner of Britain, Nelson’s County say the road signs, in the seat of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

That Brian May's let himself go

That Brian May’s let himself go

Yes indeed, I’m taking about this place:


Sir Robert’s pad, Houghton Hall in Norfolk. And the comeback of 70 paintings from 90 that were sold in 1779 to a lady with more than a penchant for ponies:

Catherine the Great – she liked art as well as horses

Over the course of his life, Sir Robert amassed one of the finest art collections in Europe, featuring names like Murillo:





and Velázquez

It was a fairly unique collection in Europe let alone Britain and to house his masterpieces, Walpole had Houghton built by the most fashionable architects of the era – Kent, Campbell and Gibbs. He entertained lavishly after his retirement from politics until his death in 1745. But this existence left Houghton and his descendants in financial trouble, and Sir Robert’s grandson was forced to sell the paintings to the determined Empress.

A quarter of a millennium later, the masterpieces made their Houghton comeback for a one-off exhibition where visitors could see the paintings in their original setting. With Houghton barely changed since Walpole’s death, it felt like stepping back into the 18th Century, and the paintings looked quite comfortable in their old home. But, like all great comebacks, they must come to an end, and as of today, off they go, departing Norfolk for those great Russian institutions: the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. Farewell Houghton Revisited, until the year 2,247. Or a trip to St Petersburg.

By Edward Lines