Professor explores 18th century English estates, artwork
Art professor Floyd Martin spent ten days in Norfolk County, England this September studying grand country homes and the artistic treasures housed within them.
Martin was privileged to stay in the historic Duke’s Head Hotel in King’s Lynn (a town in eastern England, part of Norfolk County). As part of Attingham Trust’s ten-day study abroad experience, Martin and 29 others explored the fine painting collections of historic country homes. He said he was the only person from Arkansas, and most others were museum curators, art collectors, or part of some historic building preservation group.
“The Attingham Trust,” Martin said, “was founded about sixty years ago to encourage the study of English country houses and their collections.” He explained that the trust features programs like his, in which they concentrate on one particular area of England. This particular study focused on the estates of Norfolk, because the paintings displayed in them this year will likely never again be displayed in their original home.
“There is a very grand house [in Norfolk] called Houghton Hall. It was built in the eighteenth-century by Sir Robert Walpole, who was the prime minister at the time,” the professor said. “He developed a very wonderful painting collection (c. 1730-40), but then he lost his position as prime minister in a change of government. So he had to move all of his stuff to his country house, and that is how this fabulous collection came to Houghton.”
“A couple of generations later, at the end of the eighteenth century, the family had incurred a lot of debt. So they decided to sell off most of their great painting collection to Catherine the Great of Russia, who was offering a very good price,” he said. “So then the Walpole paintings went to Russia, and there they stayed [for years]. But this year, there was a big loan back from Russia of many—but not all—of these paintings to Houghton, and they were displayed similarly to how they would have looked in 1740.”
The exhibit was still up as of Sep. 25, Martin said. “But it’s going to end in three weeks, and it’ll never happen again. The paintings will go back to Russia, and you can see them over there, but they’ll be in a different context. So seeing the paintings in context was the big draw.”
While Houghton Hall was the initial appeal of the trip, Martin said that other noblemen in the area around the same time built large country homes and stocked them with fine artwork as well. For some estates, those original collections still remain in their original homes. One such place is Holkham Hall.
“Holkham has a very fine painting collection,” Martin said. “That family never sold them, so they’re still more or less the way they were. So, those were probably the two most grand houses we saw, but we saw quite a few other grand Palladian estates to compete.”
“Thomas Coke, the guy that built Holkham, was a very famous Grand Tourist. He went with an entourage and ended up staying for six years in Rome and Florence. So when he came back, he wanted to have his estate built like a Roman palace.”
The “Grand Tour” was considered a rite of passage for many years, in which upper-class European men took trips across the continent and explored the great Arts – literature, drama, and arts and architecture – of Antiquity and the Renaissance.
“After the estate owners have been on a Grand Tour, they all wanted their houses to have collections of ancient art, as well as paintings from the Renaissance and modern periods.”
Along with Houghton and Holkham, Martin’s group explored several other estates that were either owned privately or by the National Trust: Raynham Hall, Oxburgh Hall, Felbrigg Hall and Blickling Hall.
Constructed during the medieval era, Oxburgh Hall boasts a moat around its walls with a stone bridge to cross. “It was sort of rebuilt in the nineteenth century, when they got really excited about medieval things.”
There were other estates, including East Barsham Manor, Melton Constable Hall, Narford Hall and Sheringham Park.
“We got to a couple of places where the owners were very reluctant to have visitors, so it was very rare to get to see the inside,” Martin said. “What’s fun about a lot of these historical places is that you don’t go in saying, ‘Well, that was all built in the same time period.’ Some people will add a wing, or somebody will think, “This is getting too shabby,” so they’ll even tear down a part.”
The surrounding area featured other unique landmarks: the Duke’s Head Hotel and Custom House of King’s Lynn, the Great Hospital of Norwich, and the Monk’s House and Barn of Wells-Near-The-Sea.
King’s Lynn, Martin said, was a more important city in the Middle Ages and Renaissance than it is now. The local historian told them about the city’s underground wine cellars, as well as the townhouse-like buildings, and the Custom House.
“At the Custom House, merchants would show government agents a list of what was on their boats, and they would be taxed accordingly. But it’s a beautiful classical-style building that has survived,” Martin said.
The Monk’s House, actually a house and barn combined, carries with it a curious story. “Many of these medieval monks were pretty worldly by our standards,” Martin said. “The owner was apparently someone who had a certain amount of wealth [to afford construction of the house and barn.] The thing that was fascinating was not so much its medieval time, although you could see timbering…” Timbering is a construction choice to expose the wooden frames of a building, a practice characteristic of the Middle Ages.
What Martin found “fascinating” was that in the 1950s, an “eccentric” lady owned the Monk’s House, for which she cared dearly. But the town in which she lived wanted to knock down her house to lay a road, Martin said. “And she didn’t want that to happen. So she basically, by herself, got scaffolding and numbered every shingle, every piece of wood, and eventually the whole house was taken apart—almost like a puzzle—and then slowly reconstructed 100 miles away in this town that was on the seaside [Wells-Near-The-Sea], and that’s where we saw it. So it’s a very curious story of how this woman worked single-handedly [to complete her feat.] But that was one of the oldest structures we saw.”
Though he could confess to no one favorite exhibit, Martin said that the one he felt most “entranced with” was Melton Hall. “This house was in very bad shape, and the owner couldn’t seem to find the funds to really fix it. But he took us up this great staircase that was full of scaffolding, and there was this wonderful plaster ceiling. Being able to see this house in close range was quite something. One hopes that it will survive.”
The art of the period revealed “common threads” about the mentality of the time. Martin said, “It would be hard to generalize, but the paintings certainly share that Grand Tour mentality, in which the owners wanted some kind of grand palace to house works of art from Antiquity, as well as from Renaissance and Baroque Italy.”
He pointed out that the modern concept of art display varies vastly from 18th century attitudes. “We go to a museum, and everything is kind of isolated, and we focus on each one carefully. But they had paintings much closer, they thought about the arrangement of paintings, and composition and subject were more important than who did it.”
Therefore, Walpole arranged his Houghton paintings due to their similar figures or themes, Martin said. “I think in some way our elevation of individual paintings is a little foreign to the way they thought about it.”
Aspects of the Hougton house caught Martin’s attention as well. “There were some interesting sculptures, but I think what was most eye-opening was that Walpole had devoted an entire room to an artist named Carlo Maratta, who today is considered pretty minor. But obviously [Walpole] thought he was very important.” Maratta’s 17th century painting of a pope clued Martin into the fact that maybe, “we might want to reevaluate the painter a bit; at least some of his work is very strong.”
Martin said he was most surprised at “being immersed” in seeing the paintings as they were originally displayed.
Learning of the opportunity to visit the estates was not difficult for the professor to do. His passion and specialty have been 18th and 19th century European art. “Since I’d done the program before, I stayed in touch with Attingham Trust. So when I saw the opportunity, I said ‘I’ve gotta do this! It’ll never happen again, to have this collection like this.”
Though Martin was permitted to take photographs, he does not have any video from the trip. He hopes to give a lecture on his findings sometime in the spring semester. On the Forum’s website is a video of some of his photos.
Martin is working on his thirty-first year at UALR, where he teaches Creative Arts I and II, Art History Survey II and certain upper-level courses.