Friday, January 9, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Houghton Hall at The Legion of Honor

After seeing the Keith Haring show at the De young Museum, it took a moment to adjust to the very different mood of the Legion of Honor's show of work from Houghton Hall, in England, a large house originally built by Sir Robert Walpole, in 1776, generally considered a masterpiece of Palladian architecture. The show includes a large number of paintings from the Houghton Hall collection displayed along with furniture, dinner ware, silver, rugs, and other objects laid out in several large rooms. The walls have been covered from floor to ceiling with photographic reproductions of the original rooms, which give a fairly good sense of how the various object on display would look in context.

There's an entire room of Sargents--probably the highlight of the exhibition--paintings that rarely travel. They included a painting Sargent did to document World War I damage to a cathedral. His painting of gassed WWI soldiers is well known, but the captions in the Houghton Hall show suggest he was commissioned to do a lot of this type of work, which I hadn't known. There are a couple of full-length Sargent society portraits of note and several attractive charcoal portraits of Houghton Hall residents, but I especially enjoyed a quickly sketched head of a gondolier (c. 1878) from a visit to Venice (pictured).

In the room with the Sargents, I was surprised to see a very familiar-looking head of Pope Innocent X, clearly related to the famous Velazquez portrait. Approaching a little closer, I read the label. The painting turned out to be a Velazquez study for the larger painting.
I also enjoyed a portrait of Catherine Shorter, Lady Walpole (c. 1710) by Swedish artist Michael Dahl. The wall tag mentions that she was extravagant--"frequently attending the opera and buying expensive clothes and jewelry," although she is fairly modestly attired in the portrait. The Dahl portrait is shown in a facsimile of the Houghton Hall library, with walls covered in faux books--large photographic wall coverings like the ones mentioned above. The room displays several pieces of furniture and an interesting wool rug described as English, but I noticed that triangles, apparently cut from the borders of oriental carpets, have been worked into its four corners.

Among the most beautiful objects in the entire show are two large rolls of handmade Chinese wallpapers (detail below). It wasn't exactly clear, but these appear to be actual leftovers from papers made for bedrooms in Houghton Hal, papers that presumably still cover the walls in some rooms today. The many birds on the papers are exquisitely drawn. The foliage, rocks, and other background elements are highly stylized, in some places becoming almost entirely abstract, while somehow retaining the power to evoke environments the birds might have been found in. The blue is especially striking. The show was worth seeing just for these wallpapers. The Houghton Hall exhibit runs through January 18, 2015 at the Legion of Honor.


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