The Wallace Collection is a public museum in a stately London townhouse, filled with one of the greatest private collections of art ever bequeathed to the British nation.
The collection was amassed by five generations of one family, from circa 1760 to 1880 and is displayed in their historic former home, Hertford House. The mansion is tucked away on leafy Manchester Square in London’s west end, just behind busy Oxford Street.
Highlights of the Wallace Collection
Though the Wallace Collection is known for its superb 18th and 19th century French paintings and decorative art, the wealthy Marquesses of Hertford bought what they liked, not what they thought was fashionable. The result is something for almost everyone, from Rococo Sevres porcelain to 16thC Turkish Iznik pottery.
Medieval suits of armour, including a life-sized statue of a horse dressed for battle, are housed alongside crossbows, carved pistols and exotic jewel-encrusted daggers.
Paintings by Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens hang on the walls. The museum is also home to the famous Frans Hals painting The Laughing Cavalier.
The Marquesses of Hertford
Though the first four Marquesses of Hertford all engaged in buying fine art and decorative furnishings,the greatest collector of all was the neurotic and reclusive 4th Marquess, Richard Seymour-Conway. He spent the last thirty years of his life bidding through agents for works by the Old Masters.
Seymour-Conway willed the home and contents to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace. The subsequent 1897 bequest of Sir Richard’s widow Lady Wallace was possibly the largest private gift ever left to the British nation.
Opening of the Wallace Collection to the Public
Hertford House was opened to the public on June 22, 1900. Lady Wallace stipulated that it be a closed collection, that is, nothing can be added or removed from the items donated in her will. Curators constantly work to present the collection in different lights. Galleries are updated and the museum also offers art classes and degrees and diplomas in art and design related fields.
Hertford House as Private Home & Public Museum
A tour of the Wallace Collection at Hertford House is like visiting a stately private home, which is a large part of its charm. Visitors can wander over creaky parquet floors to admire a charmingly feminine desk that was once owned by Marie Antoinette. Or you can listen to the only recorded music from the 18th century, courtesy of a 1763 musical clock attributed to Jean-Claude Duplessis, The Elder. The clock chimes 13 different tunes, one before each hour.
Everything seems so accessible, with few velvet ropes in sight. However, behind the restrained presence of the guards, high-tech protection for the Wallace Collection artifacts from both a security and conservation aspect, is hidden in the woodwork. Hertford House still acts like a private home, not a purpose-built museum, so that large numbers of visitors aren’t actively encouraged. Hence the sensation that you have discovered a hidden treasure in the heart of London.
Dining at the Museum Restaurant – The Wallace
An a la carte menu is offered in the light-filled courtyard restaurant, where a soaring atrium provides an elegant setting for lunch or dinner. Seasonal French cuisine is featured, along with a seafood bar, cheeses and pates.
The museum provides some parking for disabled patrons, (which should be booked in advance), lifts to all three floors, wheelchair-accessible washrooms, translations of English audio guides, large print text sheets, magnifying glasses and flashlights.
On certain occasions, tours are offered in British Sign Language and/or Sign Supported Language. Please refer to their website under “visiting/access” for complete information.
Visiting Hours and Admission
Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm year round, except for December 24th, 25th and 26th. Donations are recommended as admission is free.
National Trust Homes in London
Visitors to the Wallace Collection might also enjoy a tour of two other historic London homes, Fenton House and Two Willow Road. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also a top cultural destination in London.
© 2012 – 2013, Heather Zorzini. All rights reserved.