The other Sunday we drove into town and visited the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square; parked right outside for free, perfect. The gallery is free entry, more perfect still. This is under the terms laid down by the French woman who bequeathed the collection to the nation: Lady Wallace, née Amélie-Julie Castelnau, widow of Sir Richard Wallace. Another key stipulation was that no item from the collection may be lent, ever. Hence, if you wish to see possibly its most famous object – The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals – you can only see it here. More significantly, perhaps, is that thanks to her, the institution is known as the Wallace Collection, in honour of her late husband, and not the Hertford Collection, the aristocratic family into which he was illegitimately born in 1818. But probably most importantly of all, Lady Wallace ensured that the overwhelming bulk of the Hertford treasure ended up in London rather than Paris. We owe her much.
Sir Richard Wallace and his father, the 4th Marquis of Hertford, were both connoisseurs, collectors and devoted Francophiles, spending most of their time in France, mainly Paris. Lord Hertford died rather inconveniently during the Franco Prussian war of 1870 at a time when Richard mucked in as a generous benefactor of war relief for Parisians and the French soldiery, making a name for himself on both sides of the Channel. Richard inherited most of the estate, which included the massive collection and properties in Paris, London and Ireland.
The Wallace Collection – assembled mainly by the 4th Dukes of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace – is extremely eclectic. It comprises paintings, furniture, glassware, sculpture, jewellery, ceramics, china, clocks, medallions, illuminated manuscripts and a massive dollop of medieval and Eastern armour. There is very little English to speak of. Its overall flavour, I think, is represented by extremely luxurious 18C French objects. Rich gold, pinks, blues, aquamarines abound: you could contract diabetes looking at this stuff for too long. I remember when first I visited Hertford House – it must have been 25 years ago – finding it all rather overwhelming. In fact, I didn’t care for it much. But subsequent visits, informed by things one has picked up over the years, has made me appreciate this institution so much more. So definitely an acquired taste and while I may never fully fall in love with the Wallace Collection, I will always derive much pleasure from visiting, and I think you will too.
Here are a few randomly selected images from our visit. All pics by Fiona Pretorius.