Thursday, December 03, 2009

Review: The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is a national museum in an historic London town house. In 25 galleries are unsurpassed displays of French 18th century painting, furniture and porcelain with superb Old Master paintings and a world class armoury.....The Wallace Collection presents its outstanding collections in a sumptuous but approachable manner which is an essential part of its charm.
The Wallace Collection is housed in Hertford House in Manchester Square - which is north of Oxford Street and west of Marylebone Lane. I visited last week for the very first time - and I can't quite work out why I've never visited before.

You can see my sketches from the visit of this post Sketching at the Wallace Collection on Travels with a Sketchbook.

Hertford House was the main London townhouse of the Collectors, the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. The Collection was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard's widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897 and opened to the public as a national museum on 22 June 1900. It's somewhat ironic that the collection now bears the name of Sir Richard Wallace's mother rather than the family name of the Marquesses of Hertford.

The Wallace Collection was assembled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the paintings have remained at Hertford House ever since - apart from they are leant to exhibitions. As a museum, this makes it uniquely different to the other national museums. When you step into the House, to use an old but useful metaphor, it's like stepping back in time. I really couldn't believe I was less than 5 minutes walk from Oxford Street. Although a museum, many of the rooms successfully attempt to display paintings in a domestic setting alongside furniture and items of decorative arts (porcelain, glass, clcoks etc) giving a much better impression than most museums do of how such paintings might have been hung during the lifetime of their owners.

What's also interesting is that under the terms of the bequest it is a closed collection. Nothing may be added or taken away. However works which formed part of the Wallace Collection in other properties were dispersed on the death of Sir Rochard Wallace and can now be found all over the world.

The collections cover:
The Wallace Collection displays an array of European oil paintings from the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century which, among museums in England, is surpassed only by those in the National Gallery.
  • Ceramics - particularly 18th-century French Sèvres porcelain and the Italian Renaissance maiolica.
  • Works of Art - including gold boxes and goldsmiths’ work, silver and base metalwork, jewellery, enamels, glass, hardstone carvings and illuminated manuscript cuttings.
  • Furniture - including some very impressive items of French furniture
  • Sculpture - nearly 500 works in many different materials and with all the main European schools represented, from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century
  • Arms and Armour - very impressive!
For me one of the utter delights was coming across paintings by Meisonnier who is an artist I'd been learning about as I read The Judgement of Paris on my way across France in October.
in the late 1830s he also began to establish a reputation as a painter of historical genre scenes. Their small scale, meticulous detail and historical accuracy made them enormously attractive to many collectors. Within a decade he was the most expensive artist in France, his paintings largely the preserve of the financial and social elite.
Wallace Collection - (Jean-Louis-) Ernest Meissonier (1815 - 1891) - Biography
To turn a corner into the new display of French Paintings in the basement and see Polichinelle one of the paintings highlighted in the book was a huge surprise. I never knew it lived in the UK - although I had learned while reading the book that Sir Richard Wallace was a huge fan of Meisonnier's work.

One of the things I particularly noticed was the excellent condition of many of the paintings and other artifacts. It was a real pleasure to be able to look at so many paintings free of the muck of centuries! The Dutch Still Life paintings in the Wallace Collection compare extremely favourably with those I recently saw in the Louvre where many of the paintings looked like they desparately needed a clean. It's so nice to be able to see paintings in a manner more skin to the way artists intended. On reviewing the website it's apparent that a very great emphasis is placed on conservation. The Museum has its own conservators and treats in-house wooden objects (eg. furniture), and the arms and metalwork (eg. arms and armour, numerically the largest part of the Collection).

The Wallace Collection was recently rated the 7th most popular attraction in London by the people at Trip Advisor

The part of the Wallace Collection website which is actually devoted to the Collection takes a bit of exploring before you begin to realise what it can reveal and is well worth 'the trip'!

The Centenerary Project enabled a radical improvement in the space and the scope to display works at Hertford House. A glazed roof was put over the central courtyard and the basement area was opened up to provide space for four new galleries (Reserve Collection Gallery, Conservation Gallery, two Temporary Exhibition Galleries), a Study Centre (Lecture Theatre, Meeting Room, Education Studio, Visitors’ Library and two Archive Rooms) and a Sculpture Garden - which is used in the daytime as a restaurant and in the evenings for corporate events. Altogether it's a most impressive building project.

Damien Hirst Exhibition - The Wallace Collectiom

The Wallace Collection currently plays host to Exhibition: No Love Lost, Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst. I gather it has also hosted exhibitions in the past by painters such as Lucian Freud - and one can only imagine that Hirst aspires to the same credentials.

However, the facts and opinions on this exhibition are as follows...........
I found it ironic that Hirst is displaying his work in the same Museum which houses such a very large collection of work by Meisonnier. Jean-Louis-Ernest Meisonnier was once known as the artist who produced the most expensive work in France. Only the financial elite could afford to collect his work - although now he is virtually unknown. Something for Mr Hirst to to reflect on maybe?

  • Wallace Collection - website
  • The Wallace Collection, Hertford House Manchester Square London W1U 3BN
    Telephone +44 (0)207 563 9500
  • Google Maps - Wallace Collection


  1. I think the Fragonnard is on loan somewhere else. When I was there a few weeks ago, the part of the museum that contained that work and other similar French paintings was closed.

    Pleased to hear that you have discovered the collection at last. It is one of the greatest collections in London.

    Have you been to Dulwich Picture gallery. If not visit it, as soon as possible. You will be knocked out by the temporary exhibition on there now.

  2. i disagree with you about Hirst's paintings. They are thought-provoking and interesting. i like them very much...of course i really love Francis Bacon's work as well, and this group seems inspired by Bacon. i love that people do have strong opinions about art, though. That is what makes the world go 'round!

  3. Fell free to disgaree Teri! :) I take it you've only seen the painting on the internet and not in person?

    Personally I don't think the calibre of the painting - when viwed up close and in person - compares in any way to Francis Bacon. I also found them incredibly repetitive.

    The only thing they made me do is wonder whether Hirst was trying to give up smoking!

  4. You are right, i have not seen Hirst's work in person....that really could change my mind. Thanks Katherine and happy holidays!

  5. I did the bit where you stand right at the side of the painting and look at the actual brushwork in the light (always difficult to see head on) and frankly Hirst's brushwork just looked very sloppy - no real control and no apparent intention to control either. There again it wasn't painterly either!

    It's completely different to the brushwork of somebody like Bacon where you stand with your mouth agape while you try and work out HOW on earth he pulled off some of the mark-making he created in his work.

  6. i would dearly love to see a Bacon in person....someday....


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