Tucked behind the Selfridges department store in Marylebone is the Wallace Collection, one of my favourite London haunts. It’s an eighteenth-century city pile with a jaw-dropping art collection and a 500-strong furniture depository which would make Marie Antoinette feel perfectly at home. It’s a sea of crimson red, rococo gold, salmon and strawberry pink, emerald green and indigo blue. But what I love most about the Wallace Collection is that it is the largest private gift ever bequeathed to the nation, and it’s mine and yours. Here are ten reasons why you absolutely need to visit this museum gem.
I don’t think Londoners appreciate how lucky they are that most museums and galleries are free. The Wallace Collection doesn’t even charge for its special exhibitions, which many other museums do. So, walk in. Spend as much time as you need. It won’t cost you a penny.
The Wallace Collection has a jaw-dropping collection
The Wallace Collection houses works by Rembrandt, Reynolds, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Titian, Murillo, Poussin and Velázquez, to name a few. It also has the most important selection of eighteenth-century Sèvres porcelain in the world, enough arms and armour to stage a war film, ceramics, miniatures and furniture.
Most of it was owned by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, one of the richest men in Europe. He filled his mini palace, Château de Bagatelle on the fringes of Paris, with most of the pieces you see in the Wallace today. He never married and left his titanic art collection to his illegitimate son, Richard Wallace. Wallace’s widow, Lady Wallace bequeathed it to the nation, on condition that no object would ever leave the collection, not even as a loan to another museum. The Wallace Collection opened to the public in 1900.
Queen Victoria’s children, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Hardy and Disraeli were only some of the illustrious guests who once graced the salons of Hertford House.
Marie Antoinette reigns supreme
Thank goodness for we Londoners that Marie-Antoinette’s personal effects and furniture were put up for sale by the revolutionaries who looted Le Petit Trianon, the Queen’s personal chateau in the grounds of Versailles. A room in the Wallace now holds one of the world’s largest stockpile of Marie Antoinette belongings, and we even have objects d’art from Madame de Pompadour over which to drool.
This was the first desk that Jean-Henri Riesener would supply Marie-Antoinette for her private study in Versailles. Made of sycamore, holly, purpleheart, tulipwood and gilt bronze, officials couldn’t find a key for it when they ransacked the Queen’s belongings. Luckily, Riesener had designed a secret back panel which allowed them to open the desk, hereby saving it from destruction. She kept this piece in her private study for three years.
Elizabeth Vigée-Le Brun painted several magnificent portraits of the queen and her family. This portrait of Madame Perregaux was painted on the eve of the French Revolution. Perregaux’s husband was an art collector and banker, counting the 3rd Marquess of Hertford as his client.
Laugh at the mightiest tash in London
I could stare at the Laughing Cavalier for hours. It’s the detailing in the whiskers and the iridescent lace that never fails to leave me a little breathless. And that subtle smirk which beats the Mona Lisa’s hands down. No one knows the identity of the 26 year-old in this fabulous 1624 portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hals. He was the subject of a hugely competitive bid between the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild at a Paris auction in 1865. Wallace won the day, 51,000 francs poorer.
It has a sublime portrait of Queen Vic
Stephen Poyntz Denning loved to paint his Queen. Here, he copied a Thomas Sully portrait of her, and in the Dulwich Picture Gallery hangs the delightful Queen Victoria Aged 4. Make sure you check it out (as well as the splendid Dulwich Picture Gallery).
You can meet Lady Di’s rival
Say hello to Nelly O’Brien, a Georgian courtesan and mistress of Viscount Bolingbroke who was married to the first Lady Diana Spencer, also known as Lady Di. Unbeknownst to them, Reynolds was painting wife and mistress simultaneously. The painting was acquired by the 2nd Marquess of Hertford.
It has some of the finest snuffboxes in the world
Back in the day, snuff boxes were a status symbol and a fashion accessory, much like an expensive watch is these days. The box on the left was one of several owned by the duc d’Aumont, the First Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King Louis XV. When opened, the lid of this scallop-shaped snuff box shows the full peacock’s tail in full upright glory. The box on the right is most likely the creation of Christian Neuber, the most famous goldsmith of eighteenth-century Dresden. A portrait of Voltaire slides out of this delicious snuff box. Bring snuff boxes back, I say!
It’s got the best of the Swinging Sixties
In the Oval Drawing Room, you will come across a trio of exquisite paintings. Taking centre stage is Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Swing) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767). It is his most famous work, and it’s deliciously naughty. It’s my favourite painting in London, and it’s worth a trip to the Wallace Collection just to see this one erotic Rococo masterpiece.
It’s full of original pin-ups
There’s a lot of flesh on show at the Wallace, and some of these seductively delightful pieces might get you hot under the collar. One of my favourite miniaturists, Jacques Charlier, was a painter in the court of Louis XV, receiving his orders from Madame de Pompadour. There are several examples of his works at the Wallace Collection.
Tea off in one of the prettiest conservatories in London
The Wallace Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea in a quiet, light-filled, pink oasis. The restaurant is open on Friday and Saturday evenings, so you can dine under the stars. I just wish it would revert it to its original name: Café Bagatelle. It’s the perfect name for such a pretty noshery, don’t you think?
The Wallace Collection is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Did I mention it’s free? You can visit the website here.
Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector
Richard Wallace’s life is being honoured in an exhibition which explores the life of the man to whom we owe such an extraordinary legacy.
Wallace was born in 1818 and grew up in Paris before moving to London in 1871. It is thought he was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford. He worked as his secretary, and helped the Marquess collect the furniture, books, paintings and sculpture we see in the Wallace Collection today.
In 1870, the Marquess left his dazzling collection to Richard Wallace, who, armed with a bulging purse, became a collector himself. He purchased arms and armour and discriminating objects and paintings. Wallace chose Hertford House in Marylebone as his London residence, extending and refurbishing it so that it could accommodate his prodigious collection.
Wallace was a great philanthropist, lending 2040 works of art to the South Kensington Museum (now the V and A) during the refurbishment of Hertford House (5 million people would visit the free exhibition). He also gifted 50 cast-iron drinking fountains to the city of Paris, known today as les fontaines Wallace. The French bestowed a Légion d’Honneur on him, and Queen Victoria made him a Baronet.
One of the highlights of Wallace’s collection is the Asante trophy head, one of the most famous pieces of its kind and one of the largest gold objects from Africa outside Egypt. It is probably of 19th century origin and was once displayed in the Royal Palace in Kumasi, the kingdom’s capital. Wallace bought it in 1874 from Garrard & Co.
Wallace acquired this ostrich after he was made baronet by Queen Victoria. He was granted a coat of arms with an ostrich’s head holding a horseshoe. According to ancient folklore, ostriches could digest metal!
Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is on until the 6 January 2019.
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