Flawless Wallace

The Wallace Collection is a national museum with no entry fee, housing an impressive collection with a focus on art of the 18th and 19th century. It’s an undervalued treasure in London; I’ve come here many times and don’t think I’ve ever heard of it until this trip. The art was compiled over five generations of one family, the first four holding the title of the Marquesses of Hertford, according to the more informative-than-usual laminated guide-sheet at the entrance. The last was Richard Wallace, and his widow donated the family collection.

Five generations of the Seymour family lived here, and over the years garnered quite a collection. In that five generation, in 1897, his widow bequeathed 5,500 artworks to the country, which later went ahead and bought the house itself to keep the art in. It does indeed feel like it’s at home here — there’s plenty of space for everything, and nothing hung too high to appreciate or uncomfortably crowded adjacent another work.

The Wallace bills itself as an “International Treasure House,” and to prove it, contains an impressive collection of Canaletto’s famous panoramic-style paintings of Venice. The ornate museum still resembles a great family estate, divided into study, boudoir, etc.. There’s even a small conservatory on the landing and the rooms look like they would still be livable with just a return of carpet and chairs that weren’t artwork. Helpful guides in folders at the door of each room explain the origin and meaning behind the paintings.

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In an unusual touch, the Collection has laid out in the European Armoury room a few printed catalogs for perusal, where one could research the provenance and details of particular objects under glass. The one I picked up was dated 1962 and I have the feeling there won’t be a revised edition in print anytime soon.

Highlights of this focused collection include holdings in Van Dyck, and various court painters, as well as several Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits and Rembrandts, including a self-portrait. I got my first glimpse of The Laughing Cavalier by Franz Hals, whose eyes follow you around the room, just like the cliche.

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I was also struck (figuratively) by the ornate wall tiles in the alcove showing what the smoking room looked like in the late 19th century.

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Another room, another treasure: The Swing, a prime example from the period of rococo (a kind of overgrown lush over ornate Baroque style) by the French artist Fragonard, who perhaps deserves more respect than he gets. (I’ve seen this before but only today noticed the shoe flying off her foot).

The Wallace also had more domesticated items, as befits its origins as a house, with tables and chests of drawers inlaid with various marquetry (furniture decoration) along with an impressive selection of porcelain. With strong holdings laid out in gorgeous surroundings with an eye to pleasurable viewing, the Wallace Collection deserves more attention, even in a city with a surfeit of museums like London.

 

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