As Cabana launches an elegant tableware collection inspired by the decorative details at Norfolk's Houghton Hall, Camilla Frances talks to Rose, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, about life in one of England’s finest historic estates.
Nestled in the Norfolk countryside, among works of art and immaculate walled gardens, lies one of England’s finest and best-preserved Palladian houses, Houghton Hall. Designed in the 1720s by architects Colen Campbell and James Gibbs as a convivial country retreat for Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole - an aesthete with an exceptional art collection - Houghton was owned by the Walpoles for nearly a century, before passing to the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley.
The exact details and costs of Houghton's execution are shrouded in mystery - Sir Robert was careful to destroy all financial records - but it's clear that no expense was spared. Houghton was designed, built and furnished by the greatest craftsmen of the day and bears all the indelible marks of their artistry. Yet this magnificent house possesses a rare sort of humility for a building of such grandeur. Undeniably rarefied, its elegant façade hiding exquisitely opulent William Kent-decorated interiors, the estate - open to visitors from May-September - does not feel distant or grandiose. This is undoubtedly because Houghton remains a much-loved family home, to David and Rose Cholmondeley, 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley.
“Houghton is very much a family home, however there is not a day that goes by that I don't wake up feeling incredibly lucky to live here,” Rose tells Cabana. “I am in awe of the craftmanship, work and ingenuity that has gone into creating it. The level of detail is quite extraordinary, and I still come across things I had not noticed before. How they coordinated building it, with so many separate components, without the help of emails, computers and machines is really beyond me.
Almost implausibly, Houghton’s spectacularly detailed interiors - which include the double-height Stone Hall, the intricately carved Marble Parlour and the Great Staircase, surrounded by stretched canvases featuring grisaille paintings by Kent - exist in near-perfect condition today. This is largely due to George, Earl ‘Rock’ Rocksavage, the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley, and his enigmatic wife, Sybil Sassoon, founder of the Women’s Royal Naval Service and a patron of poets, artists and aeronauts.
Arriving in 1919, the charismatic and art-loving pair led a painstaking restoration of the house. Its interiors, furniture and textiles had been in jeopardy after successive generations had amassed huge debts and, struggling to cover the mortgage, sold much of Sir Robert’s fine art collection (to Catherine the Great of Russia).
Moreover, with the Walpoles owning numerous homes across the UK and the Cholmondeleys’ primary seat lying miles away in Cheshire, neither family made regular trips to rural Norfolk. This house of treasures lay empty, admired but overlooked, for decades. Until Rock and Sybil moved in, Houghton was on the market and occupied by a succession of tenants. In between tenancies, its loyal housekeepers were the only residents, the sole custodians of its remarkable contents - from carvings by John Michael Rysbrack to an exceptional child’s bed in Chinese embroidery, a christening present to Sir Robert's grandson from George II and Queen Caroline.
“As a textile lover, I am constantly admiring Houghton’s contents, which are so miraculously preserved,” Rose says. “It was partly due to the house being so little used when the Cholmondeleys moved to Cheshire, and thanks no doubt to brilliant housekeepers, that these delicate, 300-year-old fabrics survive today.”
Continuing to preserve and protect the estate for future generations is of course a great responsibility, but one that the couple wear lightly. “While David and I are continuously aware of the responsibility of running the house, we also have an enormous amount of fun here,” Rose says. “Our children rush about leaving toys scattered and we try to have friends stay whenever possible. On top of that, we always have projects to keep us busy, whether it's putting on a contemporary art show, adding to the gardens or something quite else.”
Indeed, Houghton springs to life each May when the Cholmondeleys’ programme of imaginatively curated art and design is unveiled to the public. The old stables buzz with makers arranging ceramics, paintings and furniture, while visitors wander the grounds, discovering Kent’s interiors and Houghton’s art, some permanent, some visiting for the summer. In a move the art-loving Sir Robert would surely approve of, Houghton has provided a dramatic Palladian backdrop for many contemporary artworks, including sculptures by Sir Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor, land art by Richard Long and light installations by James Turrell.
When the house formally opened to the public in the 1970s, Sybil, then in her late 80s, was there in person to enjoy sharing her pleasure in the house she'd called home for nearly 70 years. One can’t help but imagine how Sir Robert Walpole and William Kent would feel to see this fine house still in full swing some 300 years on.
“I think Sir Robert Walpole, who built the house primarily as a place to entertain and as a family home, would be amazed,” says Rose, “and even rather proud, to see that it continues to be used in this way, that it still stands in such good condition and, perhaps most impressively, continues to inspire those who come.”