Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Wallace Collection...

In this post we ferry back across the channel to visit where some of the highest quality pieces of Boulle furniture ended up: the Wallace collection. There is nothing better to do on a rainy afternoon in London than to pop down to the Wallace Collection, in Manchester Square, to marvel at the beautiful art amassed within. This charming and thankfully oft forgotten collection is discretely located in Hertford House.

The Wallace Collection has a range of fine and decorative art from the 15th to the 19th centuries with large holdings of French 18th-century paintings, Boulle furniture (Regardez vous le exemple ci-dessus), arms & armour, and porcelain; arranged into 25 galleries.

It was established in 1897 from the private collection mainly created by Richard Seymour - Conway, the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870), who left it and the house to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890), whose widow bequeathed the entire collection to the nation (on his orders).

The museum opened to the public in 1900 in Hertford House, and remains there, housed in its entirety, to this day. A condition of the bequest was that no object ever leave the collection, even for loan exhibitions.

The History of Hertford House and the Wallace Collection

From 1791-95 'Hertford' House was used as the Spanish Embassy. However, in 1797 the 2nd Marquess of Hertford Francis Ingham Seymoure-Conway(b.1743-d.1822) acquired the lease of the house. He was a Lord of the Treasury (1774-82), Ambassador to Berlin and Vienna (1793-4) and Lord Chamberlain (1812-21). The 2nd Marquess used the house as his principal London residence, holding many parties there, the most prestigious of which was the Allied Sovereigns’ Ball held after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.

Of works of art now in the Wallace Collection he bought two fine English portraits, Reynolds’s Nelly O’Brien and Romney’s Mrs Mary Robinson (‘Perdita’), and was given Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs Robinson (who was a family friend) by the Prince of Wales. He also acquired a few pieces of French furniture and Sèvres porcelain.

Above: Gainsborough's Mrs Mary Robinson ‘Perdita’

Below: Romney’s Mrs Mary Robinson ‘Perdita’

The 3rd Marquess, Francis Charles Seymour Conway (1777-1842) let the house as the French Embassy from 1836-51. He married well, but against his parents wishes. His wife, the daughter of a dancer, benefitted greatly from 2 men, the 4th Duke of Queensberry and his associate George Selwyn, who each believed that he was her father. However, the 3rd Marquess' marriage was not to last long. In 1802 they visited Paris, where they became estranged and from that time led separate lives. She remained in Paris, while the 3rd Marquess established splendid residences in London at Dorchester House (on the site of the present Dorchester Hotel) and at St Dunstan’s Villa in Regent’s Park (demolished in 1937).

Above: Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda

His later life was devoted largely to foreign travel to the extent that he was the model for the sinister figure of Lord Steyne in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. However, he was a considerable connoisseur. He bought Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda and seventeenth-century Dutch paintings such as Netscher’s The Lace Maker and Rembrandt’s Good Samaritan as well as French furniture, gilt bronzes and Sèvres porcelain.

A Sevres inkwell given to Marie Antoinette by Louis XV

He also acted as a saleroom agent for the Prince of Wales, for whom he bought forty outstanding Dutch and Flemish pictures which remain in the Royal Collection. Both men were attracted by the luxury and refinement of eighteenth-century French art and, like many other English collectors, profited from the break-up of many Continental collections during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.

Hertford House then passed to the 4th Marquess (b.1800-d.1870) who lived largely in Paris and used Hertford House as a London store for his increasing art collection.

He was briefly an M.P. and a cavalry officer, but by 1829, when he bought a large apartment at no.2 rue Laffitte, he had determined to forgo any public duties and to settle in Paris.

In 1835 he also bought the château of Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. The 4th Marquess never married. Witty and intelligent as well as one of the richest men in Europe, he sometimes ventured into Parisian society and became friendly with Napoleon III. But there was a neurotic side to his personality and he preferred a reclusive life.

The last thirty years of his life were devoted to collecting works of art. He brought Dutch paintings (including Rembrandt’s Titus and Hals’s The Laughing Cavalier), many superb Old Masters (including masterpieces by Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez and Rubens) and most of the nineteenth-century paintings now in the Wallace Collection.

Like his father, he was attracted by the superb craftsmanship of eighteenth-century France, but he acquired a wider range of objects and on a far larger scale. He bought pictures by Watteau, Greuze, Boucher and Fragonard; many fine pieces of Sèvres porcelain; furniture by the greatest French cabinet-makers such as Gaudreaus and Riesener, as well as miniatures, gold boxes, tapestries and sculpture. In his last decade he acquired the important collection of Oriental arms and armour and also bought some major European pieces.

He usually bought at auction through agents, preferring pleasing and sensuous works of art, and he attached great importance to good condition and a known provenance.

More than any other Founder, it is his taste that has determined the character of the Wallace Collection we see today. He died at Bagatelle in August 1870 as the Prussian army advanced on Paris, bringing Napoleon III’s Second Empire to an end. He bequeathed his unentailed property, including his great collection, to his illegitimate son, Richard Wallace. The Marquisate was inherited by a second cousin.

It was only with the Paris Revolution of 1871 that Richard Wallace decided to move back to London, bringing a substantial amount of his Parisian collection with him.

He redeveloped the house, creating a range of galleries on the first floor. After his death the house was converted into a public museum by the Office of Works and first opened as a museum on 22 June 1900.

Some of the rooms which house the collection:

...I love walls upholstered with watered silk...

. . . . . .

Below: The Oval Drawing Room

For further information and a catalogue of the collection visit the official website here


  1. Yes!!

    I wasn't sure I would love the Wallace Collection, for two reasons. Firstly I don't appreciate Watteau, Greuze, Boucher and Fragonard very much. Secondly I thought the collection might be an overcrowded grab bag of everything the various Marquesses of Hertford ever owned in their entire lives.

    But it is terrific. The English, Dutch and Italian paintings are stunning and the decorative arts (porcelain, gold art, furniture) are to die for.

  2. Thank you for this mesmerizing post.
    I also love silk window treatmen's as well as on the walls. What an afternoon that would be to visit this house. I love Fagonard, and all dutch masters.

    I have you on my sidebar.


  3. One of my favourite spots in London! Thanks for posting -- lovely pictures.


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