Now a national museum, The Wallace Collection was once a fashionable London residence built for the 4th Duke of Manchester in the late 1700s. It was later inhabited by the first four Marquesses of Hertford – thus renamed Hertford House – until being purchased by Sir Richard Wallace, the 4th Marquess’s illegitimate son, in 1871. Richard Wallace, along with his father, are the collectors responsible for the majority of the artworks on show.
Opened as a museum in 1900, The Wallace Collection is an art gallery displayed in a domestic setting, providing insight into the lives of Sir Richard and Lady Wallace, whilst captivating visitors with hundreds of treasures. Amongst the collection are outstanding 18th century French paintings, medieval artworks, ceramics and an exceptional array of armour – the largest in Britain.
Unlike the crowded art galleries in cities throughout the world, The Wallace Collection is a peaceful, quiet building, with enough freedom to view the artworks at a leisurely pace. Yet, being so extensive, it is difficult to appreciate each and every painting, sculpture and artefact without spending hours there, or even days. Therefore, a plan of action needs to be taken. What important artworks should visitors be on the lookout for?
Hertford House is decked out with artwork in every room, regardless of its original function. Therefore, it is impossible to miss the sculpted busts on the left when entering the Entrance Hall. Sculptures are dotted around various rooms from different time periods, but those in this first room include the posthumous bust Charles I, King of England by the impressive Louis François Roubiliac.
Portraits are in abundance, whether of real people, fictional or imagined. On the ground floor, a particular one to note is the portrait of Queen Victoria painted by Thomas Sully in 1838, a year after she ascended the throne. Most have an inkling as to how Queen Victoria looked (typically the large woman shown in the photograph by Alexander Bassano, 1882), however this particular painting shows the young Queen at the height of her youth.
The other portrait to look out for on the bottom storey can be found in The Billiard Room, which overlooks the restaurant in the courtyard. Woman Looking at her Mirror by Jean Raoux, is exactly as the title suggests. Painted toward the beginning of the 18th century, it encompasses ideas from Netherlandish and Venetian art, which was becoming of interest to the French painters at that time. The anonymous woman stands out from the dark background, but what is most striking is the reflection of the mirror on her body. The viewer cannot see the glass of the mirror, however Raoux has expertly captured the effect of the light being thrown back to accentuate the model’s features.
The upper rooms of the house are where the more famous and impressive paintings can be found. Portraits are also displayed here, including Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher. Alongside Boucher’s art work are those of his pupil, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which can be found in the Oval Drawing Room as well as the Landing at the top of the grand staircase. Amongst this collection is Fragonard’s most famous painting, The Swing (1767).
According the The Wallace Collection Guidebook, one critic expressed “the grace of it’s execution and the tact of the artist excuse the sauciness of the subject”. What is depicted is the suggestion of adultery, with the ladies husband pushing her on a swing, and her lover hiding amongst the bushes and looking up her skirt. The coquetry is intensified by the inclusion of Madame’s slipper coming loose and flying through the air. Despite the indecency of its risqué subject, The Swing is pleasing to look at as a result of its delicate colours and dreamy setting.
Another artist the original owners of Hertford House favoured was Canaletto (Antonio Canale), who has almost an entire room dedicated to him. Canaletto was an 18th century Venetian painter who specialised in detailed landscapes of his home city. The majority of Canaletto’s works were done at the request of tourists who wished to take home visual memories of their trip to Venice (naturally cameras were not around), and it was on a trip to Venice when the 1st Marquess of Hertford acquired these paintings.
Presumably, since it was the 1st Marquess that bought them, these Canaletto artworks are some the the earliest paintings the family purchased. It is not surprising that the Marquess found them so irresistible, when the attention to detail is taken into account. Canaletto excelled at depicting buildings and canals of Venice, painstakingly illustrating every brick and ripple of water.
The East and West Galleries contain an assortment of paintings and small sculptures by various artists, and are generally displayed in some sense of chronological order. Grouped together are French and British painters from the early 1800s, artwork from the Napoleonic era, and 17th century Dutch paintings, including those by Rembrandt van Rijn.
Both East and West Galleries lead visitors to the most resplendent room of the house, the Great Gallery. This room was not part of the original house, but was added during the 1870s so Sir Richard Wallace could hang the most important part of his family’s collection. Naturally, this is where the most famous paintings can be found (so if time restricted, this is a room not to be missed).
There is no logical sequence to the artwork depicted here in the Great Gallery, resulting in an amalgamation of portraits, religious scenes and mythological stories. Significant artists located here range from Rembrandt and Rubens to Velázquez and other 17th century contemporaries.
Particular highlights include The Laughing Cavalier (1624) by Frans Hals, The Persian Sybil (c.1620) by Domenichino, The Annunciation (c.1640-50) – Phillippe de Champaigne, and Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s The Adoration of the Shepherds. It is in this gallery that the majority of the religious imagery is located, mostly focused on Jesus’ birth and childhood.
The religious paintings are somewhat ironically displayed alongside the scenes from Greek/Roman mythology. The latter are a striking contrast to the humble, peaceful biblical narratives, focusing on the more violent parts of the stories. One scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is shown by two different artists. Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda (1553-62) depicting the slaying of a sea dragon, is markedly different from the painting of the same name by François Lemoyne in 1723. It is interesting to note the differentiation between the two styles and observe the change in techniques and influences between the two centuries.
The Wallace Collection is not solely for those interested in art, but also for those with an enthusiasm for armour, swords and other weapons. Located on the ground floor at the back of the courtyard, are several rooms full of armour and arms ranging from Medieval and Renaissance eras to the Napoleonic era up until the end of the 19th century. Originally a coach house and stable yard, this section of the gallery has been converted in order to display one of the largest treasuries of early firearms in Britain.
Whether you are planning a lengthy visit, or are enticed by the thought of a cup of tea in the stylish restaurant, The Wallace Collection is certainly worth a visit. Although the collection does not contain the masterpieces that a larger, more well-known gallery may display, it definitely has artworks of fame and significance. The added bonus of the domestic setting makes the viewing appreciably more relaxed and enjoyable.
Not much is explained about the individual artworks around the collection, however the gift shop supplies a reasonably priced guidebook containing a concise explanation about the history of the house, as well as details about a handful of paintings, sculptures, ceramics and armour. It may be of more worth to purchase this before beginning to tour the galleries.
I recently went to The Wallace Collection and can highly recommend a visit. However, it may not be suitable for very young children. Whilst looking at a figurine (pictured below) a young boy asked “Why does he have a spare head?”
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