What do presidents and prime ministers these days have to show for their time in office? Maybe a library or an arts center. Tony Blair, lately British prime minister, is said to have made between 20 and 40 million pounds but all he seems to have done with it is buy a portfolio of properties. Sir Robert Walpole is generally considered the politician who established the role of prime minister and the parliamentary system recognizable today. In the 1730s and 1740s he built himself Houghton, far away from London in Norfolk where the great unwashed could not see what he was doing. Among those he employed was the architect William Kent and the sculptor Rysbrack. He had also amassed one of the finest and largest collections of pictures in Europe.
When I was there a couple of days ago, the immense pile loomed out of the mist, as much as to warn visitors of the huge gap in standing between their insignificant selves and the great prime minister. As a history student I knew that Walpole had robbed the public purse but I hadn’t prepared myself to see his corruption commemorated in stone like this, in effect boasting of his shamelessness. Walpole, I told myself, had been the English Putin. In a recent essay in Commentary, the reliable scholar Leon Aron quotes estimates of Putin’s fortune between 40 and 70 billion dollars, “which would make him one of the three richest men in the world.”
Walpole’s grandson was a wastrel. In need of money, he sold the entire collection of pictures in 1779 to Catherine the Great and they have been ever since in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The collection should have been the core of the British National Gallery, but the public knew how Walpole had acquired it at their expense, and was not prepared to pay for it twice over.
In a generous loan, the Hermitage has helped to stage an exhibition of these pictures so that they hang once more on the walls where they used to be. The exhibition has been much publicized and there was a big throng of visitors. The rooms are all marble and gilt and frescoes, and the ensemble with the pictures is no doubt very splendid. More than that, though, we were all being given a chastening lesson in the effect of power and money, especially on people in high places.