The Wallace Collection is a national museum of fine art. It is based in Hertford House, an original London townhouse from the 18th century. It is one of the best secret museums in London – off the beaten tourist track. The museum is situated in Manchester Square, just north of Oxford Street and has a stunning courtyard restaurant. Entrance to the museum is free!
In the 18th century, aristocrats and the very wealthy had (at least) two homes; a country ‘seat’ and a townhouse in London. Typically, they would occupy the townhouse from November to May and the country seat from June to October.
Hertford House was built by Joshua Brown in 1788 and purchased by the 2nd Marquess of Hertford for the Seymour family; naming it Hertford House. (You may recognise the Seymour name – it was a later branch of the same Tudor Seymours; Edward, Jane and Thomas).
The house was inherited by the 3rd and 4th Marquesses of Hertford – who were largely responsible for the art collections. The 3rd Marquess was probably a tough negotiator; on his passing an article in the Times quoted that; ‘no man ever lived more despised or died less regretted’! With the 4th Marquess the zeal for collecting intensified; so much so that the entire house became an art store whilst he lived in Paris.
The house and collection were inherited by the son of the 4th Marquesses, Sir Richard Wallace, in 1870. Today, we see how the rooms were laid out in an opulent style. Sir Richard and Lady Wallace extended the collection and added the Great Gallery extension in 1875. Sir Richard Wallace died in 1890 and Lady Wallace in 1897. The house and collection were bequeathed to the nation – and so the new life of one of the best secret museums in London commenced. A condition of the bequest was that no object should ever leave the collection, even for loan exhibitions. (Notice the three busts to the founders in the entrance hall; the 4th Marquess, Sir Richard and Lady Wallace).
A stunning collection of fine and decorative arts
The collection of fine and decorative arts from the 15th to the 19th centuries consists of approximately 5,500 objects. There is a significant holding of French 18th-century paintings, furniture, arms and armour, porcelain and Old Master paintings arranged into 30 galleries. In the Great Gallery, you’ll be astounded at the masterpieces by Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Velázquez, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Delacroix – a reason it’s one of the best secret museums in London.
Many of these items were purchased by wealthy families during the revolutionary sales, held in France, following the collapse of the ‘Ancien Regime’*. It is said that, today, the Wallace Collection (plus Waddesdon Manor and The Royal Collection) is only rivalled by the Louvre (plus Versailles and Mobilier National).
French ‘Rococo’ art is strongly represented. Rococo is a softer version of Baroque; yet flamboyant with fountains, foliage and flowers, swirling scrolls and sea animals! Rococo found particular favour under the patronage of King Louis XV (1715-74) and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. However the style was ended by Napoleon – but continued in Britain under the patronage of George IV.
And three portraits…
In the Oval Drawing Room is ‘Madame de Pompadour’ by Boucher in 1759. It shows her resignation to being passed over by the King for ‘another younger model’, and entering a new platonic relationship. Also here is the world famous ‘The Swing’. This was by Boucher’s pupil Fragonard in 1767. It shows a young lady on a swing, with her legs exposed and slipper flying off; a risqué painting for the time! Fragonard did very well under the lavish patronage of Madame de Pompadour. But sadly after the French Revolution he went to the guillotine – well to see his paintings get guillotined! He died in poverty. But let us finish on a humourous note!
In the Front State Room is a portrait of ‘Queen Victoria’ by Thomas Sully in 1838. It is an attractive portrait of the Queen, made a year after her ascension. Sully was an American citizen and took his young daughter to one of the sittings. During the sitting, the Queen took a break to stretch her legs and Sully’s daughter jumped up on the throne. The Queen looked round and reputedly said; ‘that’s the first American to have sat on that throne’!
After your visit have a meal or drink in the stunning Courtyard Restaurant. (Note: beforehand, or upon arriving at the museum, make a booking for after your visit to one of the best secret museums in London!).
*Quick primer on the Kings of the Ancien Regime: Louis XIV was the ‘Sun King’ who built Versailles, Louis XV was his grandson – who reigned successfully for 59 years and Louis XVI was his grandson – who met a grisly fate with Marie-Antoinette in 1793; after the Revolution of 1789.