The Wallace Collection
by Jessica Brain
The Wallace Collection, a former townhouse, is now an impressive public museum housing a world famous art collection. Located in Manchester Square not far from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street, this grand building is as impressive as the art which it contains.
The museum displays an art collection amassed by five generations of the Seymour-Conway family, open to the public since 1900. This aristocratic family were one of the most powerful and wealthiest of their time, with close connections to the royal family.
Throughout the generations, the interest and knowledge of the art collection grew. The third Marquess of Hertford led the way, using the events of the French Revolution to his advantage in order to amass a great selection of French art, including ornate pieces of French furniture.
Following in his father’s footsteps, the fourth Marquess, Richard Seymour-Conway proved to be equally adept at accumulating an impressive art portfolio. He was said to be a recluse devoting his entire time to collecting great pieces of artwork. Much of the collection was accrued by Richard, thanks to his business acumen and great artistic perception. His illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace brought his famous collection, including one of the best assemblages of armoury, over from France. On the death of his wife in 1897, this enormous and impressive private art collection was bequeathed to the public in an act of artistic generosity we are all the beneficiaries of today.
From 1870, Hertford House was the home of Sir Richard Wallace and Lady Wallace whilst in London. Previously it had housed both a French and Spanish embassy. Built in the 18th century, it has been constantly renovated in order to keep up the high standards one would expect of such a grand building.
The Wallace Collection itself is extensive and includes an array of French eighteenth century art, Old Master paintings, as well as a significant assortment of armoury. Paintings, furniture, ornaments and sculptures sit side by side in this impressively grand, yet welcoming building. Masterpieces by Velázquez, Rembrandt, Boucher and Rubens to name just a few contribute to the diversity of artwork on display.
As you enter the museum you are greeted by a strikingly grand staircase; it is not hard to imagine the opulence of this former townhouse in its heyday. On either side of the entrance hall one can browse the collection at ease, moving from room to room, each themed around a period of history or a topic. Enjoy the assortment of artwork on display acquired from all over the world. It is not difficult to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon perusing this impressive collection!
In the centre of this magnificent building lies a courtyard which has been sympathetically renovated to accommodate a fabulous restaurant. It captures the lavish ambience of this stately house and is the perfect pit stop for those in need of a light refreshment or an indulgent afternoon tea.
Each of the rooms devotes itself to a theme, for example the smoking room exhibits works of art from the medieval and Renaissance period. In this room the stand out feature is the preserved alcove, beautifully adorned with Iznic tiles inspired by the Middle East. The smoking room was constructed around 1872 as part of a larger refurbishment project under the guidance of the architect Thomas Benjamin Ambler. The Iznic tiles with their vivid colours were made in the Minton factory in England but were inspired by the exoticism fashionable at that time. In the 19th century there was a growing trend and interest in Orientalism, of which the smoking room in Hertford House is a perfect example. In its day, this was where Sir Richard Wallace entertained his male guests after dinner whilst the ladies retired to another section of the house. The building itself is a historical monument which should be appreciated alongside its beautiful display of artwork.
The Wallace Collection has had an enormous impact on the art world. Back in 1873 a young artist called Van Gogh was working in London for an art dealer in Covent Garden. During his time in the capital he visited an exhibition from the Wallace Collection which had been displayed in Bethnal Green. This was an extraordinary exhibition for its time, with such exquisite artwork being displayed in the poverty stricken East End of London. The juxtaposition was commented on by Van Gogh and social commentators of the time. Van Gogh wrote about some of the artwork he was most inspired by, for example ‘The Forest of Fontainebleau: Morning’ by Theodore Rousseau, commenting to his brother Theo in a letter “For me that is one of the finest”. Although Van Gogh’s later work is not easily discernible in style to some of the works exhibited at Bethnal Green, it can be said that the collection served as inspiration for a young artist honing his craft and seeking inspiration wherever he went. A remarkable legacy from the Wallace Collection and a testament to its importance in the wider field of art.
Today, one can browse the artwork freely and seek personal inspiration from many of the displays and exhibitions that are regularly organised at the collection. Whatever your motivation, a visit to the Wallace Collection will not disappoint. Whether an art novice or an art aficionado, there is something for everyone to enjoy!
Hertford House, home to the Wallace Collection, is situated in Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN. Open daily from 10am – 5pm including Public Holidays, except 24th – 26th December. Entrance is FREE.
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Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.