The Legion of Honor Opens its Doors to Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House



As the golden age of aristocratic llife in England, the 18th century saw bucolic retreats conceived as extravagant stages for lavish parties and all manner of formal entertaining. Houghton Hall—a superb work of Anglo-Palladian architecture—set the stylistic standard for all country estates that would follow. Built in Norfolk in the 1700s for Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, its sumptuous interiors are the work of the legendary decorator William Kent. This season, the Legion of Honor has opened its doors to “Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House,” an exhibition that showcases the property’s private and public spaces, including its antiquities, textiles, furnishings and extraordinary artworks. 

“We hope to intimately convey the life of the house and emphasize the sophistication of the period,” notes Martin Chapman, curator of European painting and decorative arts at the Legion of Honor. “William Kent really was the décor’s hero, and he conceived all the furniture, textiles and art to showcase affluence and power.”

Houghton’s ground floor was a sanctuary. There, Walpole’s library housed the collection of family portraits he commissioned from the likes of William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent. For guests who weren’t privy to the library, the proportions of the Stone Hall—a two-storied, 40-foot cube lined with brilliant white stucco, marble and silvered limestone—offered an elegant progression from the outside into the dimly lit, richly appointed state rooms.

As a rule, interior spaces of the period tended to be multifunctional, but the Marble Parlour was solely dedicated to dining. Italian palazzos inspired its carved walls and elaborate moldings as well as the cavorting images of Bacchus on its Baroque, coffered ceiling. Kent designed a clever double-arched screen to discreetly hide service corridors for the liveried servants who invariably outnumbered the diners, and today’s male/female seating arrangement was nonexistent. Back then, men socialized far more often and more freely than women, so the room’s décor feels suitably masculine. “Sitting at the head of a table sent a message about hierarchy and diplomacy, but it was never the most fun seat in the house,” says Chapman. “You devoted yourself to the guests of honor, who sat close by while all the people in the unassigned seats flirted and traded gossip.”

Dinner was a theatrical event that often took several hours and typically included dozens of dishes placed in the middle of the table around an ornate centerpiece where guests served themselves from tureens and sauceboats. Meat was plentiful—this was the age of indulgence, after all—and one of the courses in a two-course menu might easily include roast beef, pigeon, venison, mutton, turkey, ducks and partridge. Drink also flowed freely. One Houghton guest described “a little snug party of about 30” where everyone was “generally over the chin in claret, strong beer and punch.” Frequent toasts involved an army of footmen ferrying replenished glasses back and forth on silver salvers.

Desserts at Houghton were more than likely served on Sèvres porcelain from an extensive service (which is on display at the museum along with a collection of Garrard silver). Fruit was scarce and rarely eaten uncooked; several types of cheese were available; chocolate was a novelty.

Chapman sees an obvious comparison between the lifestyle at Houghton and the services offered at today’s luxury hotels. “During this period, coddling guests and offering them every creature comfort was just as important as the quality of the food, the artwork, the beautiful light thrown off by the candles, the views of the spectacular gardens,” he says. The narrative behind the house’s decorative, artistic and stylistic nuances is also important. “When we approach all of the various branches of the arts with equanimity; when we perceive them all together, they enable us to interpret the past. And, of course, the past informs the present.” 

A version of this article appeared in the November 2014 issue of San Francisco & Gardens with the headline: Aristocratic Entertaining.

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