Last Updated on
One of the most intriguing finds of my visit to London was the Wallace Collection. I found it by accident while walking the back streets when there was a tube strike. I had visited Regent’s Park and saw a sign for a free museum collection. Of course I went in. I took the photographs in August 2015. It took until yesterday for me to process them. It has been a busy time for me this half of the year.
The Duke of Manchester was a traditional English hunting man. Regents Park is right next to Manchester Square where the Wallace Collection is located in the Duke’s hunting lodge built in 1776-1788 – because the duck shooting was good nearby. The house is known as Hertford House, having been acquired by the 2nd Marquess of Hertford and passed on to the next two generations and then to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace. On his death and that of his widow, the complete collection was donated to the British people and the museum opened in 1900 in this building. At various times the building has been the Spanish and French Embassy as well as hosting the Allied Sovereigns Ball celebrating the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.
The wealth required to accumulate such a huge and valuable collection is hard to imagine. It says a lot about England and its wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries. It also says a lot about French and English relations at the time because Sir Richard Wallace lived mostly in Paris until late in life. By the way Sir Richard’s widow left the Chateau Bagatelle and several apartments in Paris to a friend – and there was a second Wallace Collection of art of “substantial size” that was dispersed through inheritances via the 4th Marquess of Hertford under Feudal property laws.
The museum contains a static collection that was bequeathed on the condition that it not be added to or taken from. Therefore it is a snapshot of late 19th Century cultural history and taste.
According to Evan Dunstone, the furniture is very worth studying – he did so some 20 years ago. The cabinetry I saw is made from rare timbers and so richly decorated that it is hard to comprehend the pieces themselves. Seeing so many pieces of furniture in a single room is quite overwhelming. I was overwhelmed! I need to return and spend more time there.
The collection of armour and weapons on the ground floor is large and impressive. It consists of more than two thousand pieces ranging from horse armour, large canon through to spears, maces, swords, daggers and then to firearms. It could be more impressive than the collection in the Tower of London.
The collection of paintings is amazing, consisting of Dutch Masters, Renaissance Italian masters and a wish list of French 18th century artists. I probably should have taken photographs, however I was a little travel weary at the time – and overwhelmed.
It was the ceramics that really caught my eye. Read to the end to see what is really interesting.
This is an example of intricately illustrated ceramic work that must have taken a lot of time and effort to produce. The Sèvres porcelain was what impressed me the most. The Sèvres porcelain factory was established by Louis XV and continued as a Royal factory until Louis XVI was deposed. The 3rd Marquess of Hertford collected a large amount of the porcelain through purchase of the Chateau de Bagatelle in 1835. Located in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris and re-built by a brother of Loius XVI in 1775, it was probably the royal connection that caused the collection to be kept in the Chateau.
It was hard to avoid reflections from the windows and keep myself out of the picture as well. I was not expecting to need the polarising lens filter.
There are four large cabinets like this with treasures that are hard to come to terms with. Each piece was made to be purchased by royalty with deep pockets and was able to be bought at auction when the original purchaser needed money or more often when property was inherited and valuables sold for cash. A collection like this could be a life’s work to assemble.
More exquisite detail and hand painted work. Even the best potters had a failure rate in the kiln that makes such fine work so expensive. The colours and even having more than one colour on a piece were licensed to the royal porcelain factory so that most people could not have anything this good. That changed after the French Revolution when the factory was “privatised” and looking for customers anywhere.
Royal patronage allowed risky works to be created and much experimentation to be possible like for this pot-pourri vase and lid. The Louis XV period pieces (like this one) were possible also because of the use of a soft paste porcelain method that could be fired at lower temperatures and therefore allow a greater range of pigments. Later advances also allowed kaolin based “hard paste” porcelain to have a greater range of colours. The French royal porcelain factory, Sèvres, competed primarily with the German makers in Saxony of which Meissen was the first (and in Europe too) and most renown.
While most porcelain was made to be useful for something it is likely that these pieces were more for decoration and to impress visitors. Candle holders were probably used because it was a sign of wealth to have expensive ones. The Flower vase (pink) might have been used as well, for special occasions. The elephant heads with trunks connecting the candle holders would have been very delicate.
Richard Wallace left Paris after the Siege of Paris by the Prussian army in 1870-1 and the establishment of the Paris Commune with its “bloody week” aftermath. He had kept most of the art, furnishing and weaponry collection in Hertford House and took the majority of the remainder from Paris with him.
Another set of candle holders and pot-pourri vase in gondola style. It was probably bought from Madame De Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV.
That brings me to a most intriguing fact I saw on the wall of the Museum. A portion of the Wallace Collection was most likely bought from auctions resulting from the French Revolution where the contents of Versailles, particularly the apartments of Marie Antoinette were confiscated and sold. Successive Marquess of Hertford seem to have pursued these auctioned items with the 4th and Richard Wallace being the most dedicated. They all spent a lot of their time in Paris, even those who were members of the British Parliament.
Quite a number of items of Sèvres porcelain appear to have once resided in Versailles, according to the historical notes. This is a notice for an auction of articles from Versailles that appears to have been in the family archives. I understand that the furniture collection has a considerable selection from the royal French houses.