Houghton Hall, Norfolk, photographed by Ashley Hicks for Cabana Magazine Issue 17.
As Cabana launches an elegant tableware collection inspired by the decorative details at 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, Sir Robert’s great grandson through his daughter, Mary.
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 - which is open to visitors from May-September - does not feel distant or grandiose. This is undoubtedly because Houghton remains a much-loved family home, its current owners being David and Rose Cholmondeley, the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley.
The Stone Hall, photographed by Ashley Hicks for Cabana Magazine Issue 17.
Left: The Stone Hall. Right: The Great Staircase. Images: Ashley Hicks for Cabana Magazine Issue 17.
“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 the foresight of two people: George, Earl ‘Rock’ Rocksavage, the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley, and, in particular, 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).
The Marble Parlour, photographed by Ashley Hicks for Cabana Magazine Issue 17.
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 and make the house truly unique,” Rose says. “It was partly due to the house being so little used when the Cholmondeleys moved to Cheshire during the 19th century, and thanks no doubt to brilliant housekeepers, that these delicate, 300-year-old fabrics survive today.”
Left: The child's embroidered bed, a gift from George II. Right: A portrait of Sybil Cholmondeley. Images: Ashley Hicks.
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 wooden furniture - part of an annual design exhibition, Contemporary and Country - while visitors wander the grounds, discovering Kent’s interiors and Houghton’s art collections, some permanent, some merely 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.
Left: The Tapestry Dressing Room. Right: The Library, Sir Robert's Study. Images by Ashley Hicks.
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.”
Left: An elegant table laid with the Houghton Hall x Cabana collection. Right: Papavero plates, Houghton Hall x Cabana.
Images: Ashley Hicks for Cabana Magazine Issue 17.
Houghton Hall x Cabana
Inspired by the unique decorative details at Houghton Hall, and with a mutual passion for interiors, Lady Rose Cholmondeley and Martina Mondadori have collaborated to design an elegant tableware collection. The Houghton Hall x Cabana collection includes tablecloths, dinnerware and glassware, handpainted and embroidered with details from the antique silk that adorns Rose's bedroom.
"I was immediately excited as I greatly admire everything that Martina does," Rose says. "Quality, craftmanship and beauty seem to be at the core of everything she and Cabana do, so I knew she would create something lovely. And while David and I have our own small business, The Houghton Collection, the collaboration felt like an exciting way of creating something new, also inspired by Houghton, but through the meticulous and unique eyes of Martina. The Houghton Hall x Cabana collection therefore has its very own and distinct feel." Houghton Hall x Cabana
Shop Houghton Hall x Cabana