Arts & Theater

Art review: Elegant artifacts of British manor in S.F. exhibit

The manor’s Cabinet Room is a bedroom with blue Chinese wallpaper.
The manor’s Cabinet Room is a bedroom with blue Chinese wallpaper.

If you are a fan of “Downton Abbey,” you won’t want to miss “Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor before it closes Jan. 18.

Built in Norfolk in the 1720s for England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall features grand rooms designed by architect William Kent to house Walpole’s Old Master paintings, elegant furniture (some designed by Kent to go with the rooms), elaborate tapestries and Roman antiquities. Many of these rooms are recreated at the Legion as settings for luxurious furniture, silver and china, and paintings by English artists Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth.

There is a fine self-portrait by Gainsborough and a charming painting of a family with three impish young sons by Hogarth. Other paintings spread throughout the show include works by Diego Velasquez, Frans Hals and Sir Anthony van Dyck.

There are also several dashing paintings by the American expatriate John Singer Sargent in a special section of the show devoted to Sybil Sassoon, marchioness of Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumlee like the lazy “Pawn Stars” character). As mistress of the magnificent-though-neglected Houghton Hall, she undertook a restoration of the house in the early 20th century.

The show includes an informative video of the current owner of the house, David Cholmondeley, talking about the Palladian structure, which is based on classical and baroque Roman sources. He, too, has overseen the updating of aspects of the house and has added further works of art such as Edward Burne-Jones’ “The Prince Enters the Briar Wood” (1869) and contemporary works for the hall’s grounds by James Turrell and Richard Long.

The show is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalog written by David Cholmondeley and Andrew Moore with photographs by Derry Moore, which tells the story of the house and its inhabitants across nearly 300 years, from the 18th century to the present day.

The story of Walpole, who was called the “Great Man,” partly because of his girth though mainly because of his political importance, and his heirs reads like a script for a “Masterpiece Theater” series. Through the grandson of Walpole’s daughter Mary, the house passed to the Cholmondeleys, who for many years did not inhabit it.

The Old Master paintings were depleted by a sale of many of the most important pieces to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1779, which proved to be fortunate when the picture gallery of the house burned down shortly after.

At the outset of the show is a magnificent recreation of Houghton Hall’s grand state Saloon, a stunning red velvet-walled room with large paintings on the walls, a ceiling painted with a mythological scene, and handsome furniture including the gilded throne of the Prince of Wales. Walpole’s erudition is evident in the recreation of his library, a warm wood-paneled room set with his daybed and side chairs.

Other magnificent settings include the Marble Parlor, one of the first rooms designed as a dedicated dining room filled with treasures such as an elaborate gold soup tureen and punch bowl and distinctive silver forks with agate handles; the Cabinet Room, once a display area for curios, now a bedroom with blue Chinese wallpaper and a bed with a hand-embroidered spread; and the Tapestry Dressing Room with floor-to-ceiling tapestries of the seasons of the year, a velvet-and-ermine ceremonial robe worn by the marchioness and a gold-embroidered uniform worn by the marquess of Cholmondeley in his hereditary role as Lord Great Chamberlain, the officer in charge of the Palace of Westminster. (A marquess is ranked above an earl and below a duke in British peerage.)

The show is accompanied by an audio tour that regales listeners with tales of a great banquet in the Marble Parlor, as well as digital images of the actual rooms of Houghton Hall including the magnificent Stone Hall that welcomes visitors.

Seeing this show would make a wonderful holiday treat.

Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House

Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco

When: Through Jan. 18, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays

Cost: $10-$18, members and children 5 and under are free\

Information: www.legionofhonor.org , (415) 750-3600.

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