In 2013, preparations for a celebrated homecoming were being made at Houghton Hall, the two-centuries-old family seat of the storied Cholmondeley family, who, along with their aristocratic lineage and grand estate, had passed down the title of Hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England.
In 1779, the descendants of Lord Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of England, had been forced to sell off the bulk of his collection of Old Master paintings to Catherine the Great in order to help pay off debts and keep the family home in working order.
Now, 70 pieces from that early trove of works were temporarily returning home. During a four month-long exhibition, the canvases were to take up their original seats of honor upon the wall and the home was to be staged as it was during their reign.
But there was one important piece missing.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s celebrated 18th-century still life 'The White Duck' had survived the sale to Russia as well as the various smaller listings and auctions that had been periodically necessary during the ensuing centuries when funds were short.
But it did not survive the sticky fingers of a group of thieves who invaded the house in the early 1990s, hunted down Oudry’s painting where it hung in a sitting room filled with French furniture, and absconded with it (along with several antique clocks).
Authorities believe the painting may now be in the hands of members of the Traveller community, but all efforts to recover the work have so far been for nought.
The story of 'The White Duck' begins in the early 18th century when Oudry was plying his paintbrush in Paris and caught the attention of Louis XV.
In 1725, at the age of 39, he was “invited, or rather commanded,” as art historian Amy Freund wrote in a 2016 essay, to travel to Versailles to paint a portrait of members of the king’s court. The commission went so well that Oudry soon became a favorite of Louis the Beloved.
What followed was a cascade of accolades for the talented painter. Oudry and his family were invited to move into an apartment in the Tuileries Palace complete with an art studio; he was given an exhibition at Versailles and appointed the “official painter to the royal tapestry works at Beauvais,” a very lucrative honor.
He became a professor at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and sold his work to some of the top buyers of the day, including Count Carl Gustaf Tessin, the Swedish Ambassador to France.
From his early days as an artist, Oudry was inspired by the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters who specialized in genre paintings particularly of hunting scenes. Oudry excelled at depicting animals and had a special fondness for portraying dogs. (It was a portrait of two dogs, Misse and Turlu, that had brought the painter to the attention of Louis XV.)
Throughout his career, the artist would become something of a jack of all styles when it came to en vogue subject matter. He would paint portraits and historical scenes, dip his brush into genre painting and still lifes, not to mention the tapestry design that helped make him rich and famous. But, throughout it all, he displayed a fondness and a keen eye for animals.
Two years before he died in 1755, Oudry made 'The White Duck,' a trompe l’oeil still life. The painting depicts a dead duck hanging upside down pinned by one foot to the wall. A crumpled piece of paper skewered by the same hook reads “JB, Oudry 1753.” The head of the duck lulls lifeless on a table covered by a scrunched up cloth, a candlestick, and a round, shell-like covered bowl.
Despite the grisly subtext of what could be taken as a post-hunt scene, The White Duck is a beautiful painting, with the folds and texture of every surface, the details of every object, rendered with a delicate precision. The predominant color scheme is white, but the whites come alive in the light and shadow, creating a nuance in monochrome.
The National Gallery of Art described the still life as “a stylistic exercise in which the description of the textures and surfaces of the objects is a breathtaking tour de force.”
“It is a painting engineered to show off Oudry’s skills in reproducing different materials, objects and shades of white in confident, convincing perspective, cheating life and death, defeating the laws of gravity and time,” writes Victoria de Rijke in her book Duck. “Appropriately enough, since 'The White Duck' is about art and illusion, it has disappeared.”
Oudry was flying high as a famous French artist by the end of his life, so it’s no surprise that Tessin snapped up this late-period painting “sight unseen” before it was ever shown in an official exhibition. Soon after, 'The White Duck' was acquired by the famed Walpole collection and began to make its home in Houghton Hall.
Time has not been kind to the grand country estates of England that require tremendous resources and upkeep by aristocratic inheritors. For nearly a century and a half, Houghton Hall suffered the same struggles and bouts of being put on the market and rented out to tenants.
But the grand home managed to stay in the Cholmondeley family, the descendants of Walpole, and finally landed in the capable hands of the fifth Marquess and his wealthy wife Sybil after WWI. The pair began to set about putting the house back to rights.
By all accounts, Sybil was a 20th-century grand dame of the most delicious order. She was fun and witty and knew how to throw a party, even at the end of her long, ten decades of life.
In 1984, Deborah Mitford, one of the famed Mitford sisters, wrote a letter to British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor describing the 90th birthday party held at Houghton Hall for Sybil: “We all made a monster effort, jewels galore &, a rare thing, there was exactly the right number of people. Surrounded by the Oudry White Duck, many a Gainsborough, Sybil’s mater by Sargent, the Holbein of a squirrel & ‘my brother Philip’s Things’ positively gaudy among the indigenous Kent kit, French clocks surrounded by sort of diamonds, eastern this & that all one size too small but adding a lot, the royal people, seven minutes of block busting non-stop fireworks seen through the fat glazing bars & the old glass which is full of swirls & distortions, fires & flowers everywhere. Oh do try & picture the scene.”
Less than a decade later, the Oudry painting that had been witness to countless scenes like this one over centuries hanging in the grand house was conspicuously absent.
The current Lord Cholmondeley hired the big guns to help track down the prized family possession. Charles Hill, the former head of the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard and who now runs his own private practice, has been on the case. (Hill declined to comment for this piece at the wishes of Lord Cholmondeley.)
A few leads have surfaced over the years. It has commonly been thought that members of the Traveller community were in possession of the painting, and in 2000, the Guardian reported that a former police informer “believed 'The White Duck' was being hidden in the attic of a remote and rundown house on moors near Newcastle.” In 2002, the case attracted some controversy when it became known that Hill had enlisted a former art thief, David Duddin, to help find the work.
Despite the trickles of information and suspicion, the painting valued at over $8 million remains missing from the walls of Houghton Hall. The theft is a tragedy for the Cholmondeley family and for the legacy of Oudry, but it may not always be so.
After all, if the grand estate knows anything, it’s that history is long and that there is always hope that, like its relatives in Russia, 'The White Duck' will return home once more.