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Inside One of England’s Most Legendary Houses for the Dinner Party of the Year

Thundering Albino Deer, a James Turrell Skyspace and an 18th Century Room With Wallpaper to Swoon Over

BY // 04.01.19
photography Tori Hancock

Prince Charles once described Houghton Hall as “one of our country’s priceless jewels, a great house — in my humble opinion, one of the greatest in England.”

That’s a considerable endorsement from a man who resides in many such jewels. Houghton Hall, commissioned in 1720 by England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, rambles along 350 acres of stunning Norfolk parkland.

Walpole, a man of substantial taste and money, built his country home without regard to cost. Today, Houghton stands as one of Britain’s most splendid Palladian houses, its English baroque interiors and furnishings, designed by William Kent, remarkably preserved.

The prince spent time at Houghton as a child. It’s about two miles from Sandringham, where the Queen has a country estate. Nearby is Anmer Hall, which the Queen gifted to Prince William and Catherine Middleton as a wedding present.

Houghton, the ancestral home since 1815 to the Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, has a new generation of family that has endowed it with an art vibe and an impressive collection of contemporary outdoor sculpture, including a James Turrell Skyspace and works by Zhan Wang and Richard Long.

It’s a private home, but many areas are open to the public, including last year’s sold-out show of Damien Hirst’s paintings and sculptures.

The Treasure of the Details

Lady Rose, the 35-year-old current Marchioness of Cholmondeley, was a model with aristocratic lineage before marrying David Cholmondeley and becoming chatelaine of Houghton.

While immersed in the redecoration of the private rooms, she reached out to London-based de Gournay to purchase panels of its Amazonia wallpaper for her bath and dressing areas. Hannah Gurney, director of de Gournay and daughter of founder Claud Gurney, suggested instead that Lady Rose reproduce the blue paper from Houghton’s Cabinet Room in a new colorway of her own design.

“It has been one of our favorite examples in the world of exquisite 18th-century hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, and we always dreamt of reproducing it,” Gurney tells Papercity.

“That was when Lady Rose mentioned the antique panels that she had, just a few months previously, discovered in her attics. It was the most serendipitous timing.”

The Cabinet Room at Houghton Hall (Photo by Tori Hancock)
The Cabinet Room at Houghton Hall (Photo by Tori Hancock)

The extra Cabinet Room panels had been rolled up for hundreds of years, protected from the degrading effects of light and time. Hand-painted on a striking cobalt paper, the oriental-garden design dazzles in rich pinks, greens and reds, with gold-leaf accents on the petals and leaves.

“It was a breathtaking experience to unroll them — and a very rare moment that we were unlikely to come by again, ” Gurney says. “The attic panels convinced us that we had to reproduce them, no matter what.”

The result is a hand-painted wallpaper collection named Houghton, based on the great estate’s original panels. To celebrate, de Gournay introduced the collection at a lavish dinner party hosted by Lord and Lady Cholmondeley.

The Glamorous Dinner of Design

Dallas interior designer and antiquarian Joseph Minton and his partner, Kevin Peavy, were among the 80 guests, which included some of de Gournay’s top clients from around the world. Minton has been commissioning de Gournay wallpaper for almost 40 years and was the first to use its Coco Coromandel, a design based on a coromandel screen from Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment.

As their car pulled up to Houghton at dusk, Minton remembers a herd of albino deer thundering across the drive. Once inside, he spotted Lady Rose, who was scurrying about in jeans and tennis shoes, making last-minute adjustments to the flowers before disappearing to dress.

She soon descended the staircase in a long silk gown, aptly printed with roses. Her contingency of fashionable guests included Amy Astley, editor in chief of Architectural Digest, and Houston expat Katalina Hicks, who lives in England with her husband, interior designer Ashley Hicks.

There was Elle Decor’s Whitney Robinson, AD’s Mitch Owens, and Amanda Brooks, who is married to an English artist and living in the Cotswolds, where she writes books and has opened a new store, Cutter Brooks. She wore a spectacular ruffled pink gown, designed specifically for the occasion by Valentino.

The seated dinner, held in one of Houghton’s many entertaining rooms, was entirely illuminated by candlelight. Lord David Cholmondeley presided at one end of the 40-foot-long table, with the founder of de Gournay, Claud Cecil Gurney, at the other.

Minton was seated next to designer Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and a descendant of Winston Churchill.

The two talked of Dallas, where Spencer-Churchill has designed several projects and plans to return. English designer Nicky Haslam was there, along with his former protégé, the lovely Swedish designer Beata Heuman, as well as designers Steven Gambrel, Alessandra Branca, Alidad, Stewart Manger, Madeline Stuart and Kathryn Ireland.

South Africa-born designer Sophie Ashby was stunning in an elegant white trouser suit. Charmingly, one of the Cholmondeleys’ young sons hid underneath the vast table during dinner, with guests feeling a slight brush as he crawled by.

The menu included venison from deer raised on the Houghton estate and vegetables from their kitchen gardens. Guests departed with exquisite jars of honey from Houghton’s beehives, along with olive oil bottled on Claud Gurney’s estate in Croatia.

But the real stars of the evening were the astonishing blue Cabinet Room and the magnificent wallpaper collection it inspired. The de Gournay colorways include the original bright hues found in the attic panels, as well as a more muted version inspired by the Cabinet Room paper as it appears today.

And as for Lady Rose’s private bath, she created a third colorway in a delicious pink.

De Gournay to the trade at Culp Associates, culpassociates.com.

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