Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House
Thru Sept 21
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Last week, Lord David Cholmondeley, the Lord Great Chamberlain of the United Kingdom, was in Houston to celebrate the opening of the new MFAH exhibition devoted to his house, Houghton Hall, a grand Downton Abbey–like estate built in the early 1700s by his ancestor Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first prime minister. The exhibition includes furnishings and paintings from Houghton’s extensive collection, including Sèvres porcelain, William Kent furniture, and paintings by William Hogarth and John Singer Sargent—the latter a family friend in the early 20th century.
After leading a tour of the exhibition for the local press corps, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley—formerly the Earl of Rocksavage before assuming his current title upon his father’s death—sat down with Houstonia (or rather stood up with Houstonia, there being no chairs in the vicinity) to discuss his art collection, as well as the life of an English lord in the 21st century. Wearing a climate-appropriate ensemble consisting of a navy linen blazer, crisply pressed khakis, a square-end tie, and oxfords—call it colonial chic—Cholmondeley sipped iced tea while politely enduring our inquisition.
First off, how should I address you?
David’s fine, please. I don’t go in for that sort of thing…I guess it would be Lord Cholmondeley. But as you like.
I loved your story about Prince Charles looking for his throne at the opening of Parliament. [The Prince of Wales’s ceremonial throne, which reposes for obscure dynastic reasons at Houghton Hall, is in the exhibition.] Were you there for that?
Yes, it was a joke. He’s very funny—he has a good sense of humor. He knew that it was away, and of course he didn’t need it at all.
So he knew it was in Houston?
Of course, yes. I said we were having a show and it was going.
And he was fine with that? He had somewhere else to sit?
Oh yes. For years he never came to the opening of Parliament, and the last two years he has.
He really has a sense of humor? It doesn’t really come across in public.
He does—he’s so funny, and he’s so quick. He’s helped us a lot, because it’s a lot easier to get sponsorship in England if you have the Prince of Wales as your patron.
I understand that certain parts of Houghton Hall are open to the public.
Yes, every year from May to October. We opened it in 1976.
Was that to help raise money to maintain the house?
Partly that, and there were tax advantages. You don’t have an inheritance tax if it’s a public benefit. I don’t know if you have the same thing in America.
I don’t know about that—I’m not a homeowner myself. Many of the people coming to the show are probably Downton Abbey fans.
Yes, it’s amazing. I didn’t know it had made such a success here. I know the guy, Julian Fellowes, who made it. He knows those houses, so he was the best to write it.
How does life today in a great house like Houghton compare to the depiction of Downton Abbey?
In no way does it compare.
You don’t have armies of servants?
No. We’re very private—we have a kitchen and dining room, and we do most of it ourselves. Sometimes when we have a formal dinner we’ll have a cook. But we try to make it as natural as possible. Of course we have a very, very wonderful, nice, dedicated staff who clean the place and do much more, but it’s far more scaled down than in those days.
Do you feel a responsibility to your family to keep the house and the art collection together?
I do. I feel very much that I’m just here for my tenure. Not a housekeeper exactly, but perhaps a curator. [At this point Lord C. spots a few French friends noshing on finger sandwiches. He walks over and chats with them for a few minutes in fluent French before returning—somewhat reluctantly, it appears.]
What do you like to do when you’re in Houston?
I like to go to the Menil Collection, and the Rothko Chapel as well. This time I’m hoping to visit the Turrell Quaker Meeting House. [Lord C. commissioned two Turrell works for Houghton’s grounds.] And then the Rienzi—I’m going to see that tomorrow. It’s a very cultural city. I’ve only spent a few days at a time here, but I’d like to spend more. And I like this rather humid heat. It’s unusual for us.
Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, David.