How an 18th century Grand Tour inspired Holkham’s extremely grand art collection
PUBLISHED: 16:19 18 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:30 18 July 2018
The 1st Earl of Leicester’s 18th century travels were the catalyst for the stunning array of art that greets visitors to north Norfolk’s Holkham Hall today. Arts correspondent Emma Knights finds out more.
From Roman statues to paintings by Van Dyck and Rubens, almost everywhere you look in north Norfolk’s Holkham Hall there is a masterpiece to behold.
Each one is a stunning work of art in its own right, and together they illustrate the story of Thomas Coke, the 1st Earl of Leicester and who was the man who created Holkham Hall.
The lion’s share of the exquisite works come from the Grand Tour he took between 1712 and 1718, with some additions to complement the collection at a later date.
“The essence of the house was Thomas Coke’s creation and his collecting,” said the 8th Earl of Leicester, who is the current custodian of Holkham Hall.
“He went on this six year Grand Tour which was the longest recorded Grand Tour ever.”
The 1st Earl of Leicester was just 15 at the time, and part of the reason for the tour was to help him develop from being an unruly teenager into a gentleman worthy of the Holkham fortune that he had inherited when he was just 10-years-old.
He travelled through France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Low Countries, learning lessons in architecture, languages and other subjects, and along the way developed his taste for art.
He returned, just before his 21st birthday, with much of the collection that adorns Holkham today as well as ideas for the creation of the hall in which it stands and which was built between 1734 and 1764.
Holkham’s collections manager Maria de Peverelli said: “He selected the painters that were the most important at the time...and then he collected antiquities which also was an extremely important thing, and he managed to create probably one of the largest collections of antiquities in this country.”
Many of these Roman antiquities can be found in Holkham’s Statue Gallery, including one – a 190-200AD statue of Diana - which has a rather intriguing story.
“This marble statue of Diana is one of the most remarkable acquisitions of Thomas Coke’s Grand Tour,” explained Holkham’s archivist Lucy Purvis.
“Exporting the statue back to England became a huge challenge due to a papal law preventing the movement of marble without a licence. Myths around how the statue came to England became legendary. Some accounts told how Coke was imprisoned and only set free after the intervention of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.”
The statue was clearly important to him because it later appeared in the background of his portrait painted in 1758 by Andrea Casali.
Just a few of the many other highlights of Holkham’s collection of masterpieces are seven landscapes by French painter Claude Lorrain that are among 22 pictures found in Holkham’s Landscape Room - only the Louvre in Paris has a larger collection of Claude Lorrain’s work.
In terms of portraiture highlights, there is a 1634 Van Dyck painting of Prince Albert Francois de Ligne, Duke of Arenberg, which was the last recorded piece of art purchased by the 1st Earl of Leicester in Paris before he returned to England from his Grand Tour in May 1718, and a 1620 Sir Peter Paul Rubens painting called The Return from the Flight into Egypt which was bought at a later date to hang opposite the Van Dyck in Holkham’s Saloon.
The 1st Earl of Leicester also appears in a number of paintings himself, including a 1717 portrait by Francesco Trevisani, considered to be the most important portrait of the creator of Holkham Hall, and there is also a more unusual representation in the 1716 Sebastiano Conca painting, The Vision of Aeneas in the Elysian Fields.
“He is on the left as Orpheus, playing a lyre,” said Ms Purvis.
Along with all the paintings, sculptures and antiquities, Holkham’s collection also includes beautiful textiles and furniture, not to mention its extraordinary and vast library of manuscripts and books.
Other members of the family have also added to the impressive collection, including Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, 2nd Creation, whose smaller 1774 Grand Tour led to him bringing back, among other things, a mosaic of a lion and leopard dating from the 2nd century BC and originally from a Roman theatre in Gubbio, Umbria.
And collecting still continues today at Holkham.
The current Lord Leicester said: “We are still collecting, not huge great expensive paintings, but when things come up for sale at auctions which have a Holkham angle...anything that has an historical association with the house we try to bring back home.”
Ensuring Holkham’s collection is enjoyed by a wide audience
The 8th Earl of Leicester is passionate about ensuring Holkham’s incredible art collection is enjoyed by as many people as possible.
“I took over from my father 10 years ago and moved into the hall, and he very much impressed upon me that people in my position, lucky enough and privileged to have a great collection like this, it’s beholden on us to share it with everybody,” said Lord Leicester.
About 45,000 visitors see the works at Holkham each year but many are also loaned to venues across the county and wider world so they have an even wider audience.
One of Holkham’s most loaned works is a painting by Bastiano da Sangallo called Battle of Cascina, Italy, 1542 (after Michelangelo cartoon). It is thought to be the only surviving copy of Michelangelo’s mural and through being loaned to several places in Japan and also New York’s Metropolitian Museum of Art recently it has been seen by more than a million people.
Other Holkham works that have been out on loan in the past couple of years include:
• The Vincenzo Tamagni painting Lady with Lute Player, 1492-c1516, which was previously thought to be by Zacchia il Vecchio until a loan to Castel Sant’Angelo, in Rome, led to experts discovering it was more likely by Vincenzo Tamagni.
• A 16th century French work of Moses and the burning coals, which was loaned to the Louvre, in Paris.
• John Piper’s 1939 oil painting of Holkham Hall, which was loaned to Tate Liverpool and the Mead Gallery, Coventry.
• A manuscript of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other works from late 15th century Bruges, which were lent to the Groeningemuseum, in Bruges.
• Holkham Hall is currently presenting the exhibition Treasures and Trophies – The Making of a Gentleman and a Great House. It is open from midday to 4pm on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays until October 31. Visit www.holkham.co.uk