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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A History of The Wallace Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts

What is The Wallace Collection?

The Wallace Collection is a collection of fine and decorative arts, displayed in the opulent rooms of Hertford House, a former London townhouse.

The Wallace Collection

History of The Wallace Collection

Originally a grand London townhouse in the heart of Marylebone, Hertford House is home to one of the most superb collections of fine and decorative arts that the city has to offer. Marylebone was a district that emerged in the mid-17th century and formed part of London’s genteel ‘West End’, an area which aristocratic landlords redeveloped after the Great Fire and where the rich elite were increasingly choosing to construct their luxurious townhouses.

The Wallace collection was compiled over the course of two centuries thanks to five men: the first four Marquesses of Hertford, and Sir Richard Wallace, illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. On her death in 1897, Lady Wallace, Sir Richard’s widow, bequeathed the collection to the British nation. Three years later Hertford House had been converted into a museum and in the year 1900 opened to the public for the first time.

Richard Seymour-Conway, the 4th marquess, was one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century. Conway was brought up in Paris, where he acquired a taste for French decorative arts. His enormous wealth, obtained through land ownership in England and Ireland, meant that he could satisfy this appetite for collecting. The 4th Marquess bought art on such a large and obsessive scale that he was unable even to display much of his collection, of which the majority was kept in storage. He died in 1870, having never married; he left everything, including the keys to his family home Hertford House, to his illegitimate son Richard Wallace.

Wallace, who had inherited his father’s taste for beautiful objects, added to his collection before transporting it all to London. The collection was now so large, especially after the addition of objects already collected by the previous three Marquesses, that Wallace had to have Hertford House converted to display it. While this was taking place, he displayed much of the collection at Bethnal Green Museum. The exhibition was a sensation, even visited by van Gogh, who wrote about it in one of his many letters to his beloved brother Theo.

The Wallace Collection sits perfectly within the magnificently resplendent interior of Hertford House. Entering the front hall, you will first be presented with a strikingly grand staircase. You can easily imagine well-dressed guests gliding down it to dinner and stumbling back up hours later. On the silk-covered walls of each room you will find work from the most important artists of the 15th to the 19th centuries. The collection includes 19 works by François Boucher, five by Rembrandt and 12 by Joshua Reynolds, as well as the wonderfully endearing Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals.

A whole gallery is dedicated to the finest collection of European and Oriental armour in Britain. There is gold on almost every surface, the walls, furniture and candlesticks. Priceless ceramics are displayed in glass cabinets, with a whole display case devoted to Sèvres porcelain. Bronzes sit atop the gratuitous decoration of Rococo furniture. It is all illuminated by excessively brilliant chandeliers. This is a collection that in every area contains works of art of the very highest quality – opulence everywhere you look.

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