People call me The Laughing Cavalier, and I am the international man of mystery at the Wallace Collection in London. No one knows precisely who I am, and whilst people refer to me as laughing, I am, in fact smiling under those magnificent whiskers of mine. I like to think of myself as the Mona Lisa of London. Want to know more?
Take a closer look at me. Come on. That’s the wonderful thing about the Wallace Collection: you can practically whisper sweet nothings in my delicate ear.
I was born in 1624 which makes me 397 years old, but I was frozen in oil at the tender age of 26 by the Dutch Baroque painter, Frans Hals. I am from Haarlem in northwest Holland.
The eminent Pieter Biesboer (curator of the Frans Hals Museum until 2009) believes I may be Tieleman Roosterman, a wealthy textile merchant who lived in Haarlem. Some hint that I might be a betrothal portrait. An eponymous novel by Baroness Orczy (of Scarlet Pimpernel fame) suggests that I am Percy Blakeney, Frans Hals’ adopted son.
Richard Seymour-Conway, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, bid for me against Baron James de Rothschild at an 1865 auction in Paris, paying six times over the sales estimate. I was then known as Portrait d’un Homme (Portrait of a Man). The Marquess kept me in in his Parisian home prior to relocating the two of us over to London.
The Victorians referred to me as A Cavalier when I was exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum between 1872 and 1875. The museum, incidentally, is now called the V&A Museum of Childhood, and I thoroughly recommend a visit when you can.
I was a real-crowd pleaser, becoming one of the nation’s most famous old master paintings. Facsimiles of me popped up all over the country.
In 1888, I was shown off at the Royal Academy where I finally became known as Laughing Cavalier.
My final resting place is at the Wallace Collection. Visitors here have been gazing in wonder at me since 1897. The Wallace was then known simply as Hertford House, the Marquess’ London home. He left the house and all its contents to Richard Wallace, thought to be his illegitimate son. I now belong to the nation, courtesy of Wallace’s wife who bequeathed the house and its phenomenal contents to the country.
You can find me in the Great Gallery on the first floor, a dazzling room wrapped in crimson silk and known as one of the most important picture galleries in Europe. I share space with Van Dyck, Titian, Murillo, Velázquez, and my favourite, Thomas Lawrence’s striking portrait of George IV (looking a tad slimmer than he was in real life, if I’m honest).
Let’s be clear about something. I am the star of the gallery. People come from all over the world to view my swagger. More recently, the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik paired my flamboyance with some delicious Puss ‘n Boots style bootwear.
A true fashionista, I am wearing one of my favourite outfits for Mr Hals. Check out my white ruff and the refined lace around my sleeves. The colourful embroidery on my jacket is an ode to the pleasure and pain of love and includes a symbolic composition of bees, arrows and lovers’ knots. Pyramids and obelisks bespeak strength – or something else, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
And don’t you just love my marvellous tash? Methinks Groucho, Poirot and Dali modelled their handlebars after mine, ja?
You can catch The Laughing Cavalier in all his magnificence at the Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN. Entry is free.
Other paintings by Frans Hals in London
Sources: Wallace Collection, Wikipedia