Walpole's Old Masters: Houghton Hall exhibition dismantled

Portrait of Pope Clement IX  Carlo Marrata. Oil on canvas, 123x170 cm, Italy, 1669. The exhibition included paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt

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An exhibition at a Norfolk stately home of art masterpieces lost to the UK for 234 years is being dismantled after attracting about 100,000 visitors.

The Old Masters collection was owned by Britain's first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, but was sold to Russia to pay off debts.

It returned to his family home Houghton Hall in May after The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg agreed a loan.

The Houghton Hall Revisited exhibition ran until the end of November.

Sir Robert Walpole

House of Commons in Walpole's time
  • Born in 1676, Walpole was a Whig who dominated politics in the reigns of George I and George II and is considered to the first holder of the office of prime minister
  • In 1701 he became MP for Castle Rising in Norfolk
  • He rose rapidly, becoming a member of the Admiralty Board, secretary of war and, in 1709, treasurer of the Navy
  • His rise was temporarily halted by the Tories who, in 1712, accused him of corruption and he was briefly imprisoned
  • In 1735, George II made Walpole a gift of 10 Downing Street. He died in 1745

More than 70 pieces, including works by Van Dyck and Rembrandt, were hung in their original positions and surrounded by the original furniture, bronzes and marble antiquities.

Now the paintings have been taken down, repacked in their bespoke crates and hoisted through the window in the Stone Hall into waiting trucks.

The paintings will now make the 2,736 km 1,700 mile (2,736km) journey home to Russia in climate-controlled trucks at the end of the week.

The number of visitors was a surprise to people at Houghton Hall, including its current owner the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, said organiser Sue Thompson.

"We had 115,000 visitors - a huge increase for Houghton Hall," she said.

"Some 40,000 or 50,000 would have been a good measure of success.

"It'll be a great shame when the last truck leaves."

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