One of London's best kept cultural secrets includes 25 galleries housing 18th-century French paintings, furniture and porcelain, and works by masters from the 14th to the 19th century.
By Ana Marisol Angarita
Unbeknownst to some, The Wallace Collection—a museum that houses one of the world's top European art collections—is located in the center of London. It also represents the greatest legacy of art ever bequeathed to the UK.
This national museum of private origin is located within minutes from the central Oxford Street—one of the world’s most famous shopping boulevards. The institution includes 25 galleries with unsurpassed samples of 18th-century French painting, as well as furniture and porcelain that complement magnificent paintings by old masters from the 14th to the 19th century, as well as a fantastic armor collection.
The Great Gallery is the jewel in the crown. With stunning aesthetics, it displays works by artists from all over Europe, like Perseus and Andromeda by the Italian Renaissance painter Titian —commissioned by King Philip II of Spain. There are also works by the Spanish baroque master Diego Velázquez, and pieces from prominent representatives of the Flemish school, such as Peter Paul Rubens and his apprentice Anton van Dyck.
The museum boasts the largest selection of objects that belonged to Marie Antoinette, Queen Consort of France, among which stands out a commode created exclusively for the queen by court cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener.
Also, the largest collection of princely weapons and armor in the UK is in this museum that manages to retain the character of a private home. On display, the visitor will find gold boxes, sculptures, medieval and Renaissance pieces, majolica, beautiful Limoges and Sevres French porcelain, and Meissen porcelain from Germany.
Initially conceived as a family collection, The Wallace Collection reflects the aesthetic tastes of those who were responsible for shaping it. The paintings and objects were selected and acquired between 1760 and 1880 by the successive Marquises of Hertford and Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son and heir of the fourth Marquis, Richard Seymour-Conway.
Thus, the Regency Style—the transitional period between the Georgian and Victorian times—is clearly reflected in the artworks acquired by the first three Marquises of Hertford: Edward Seymour, Francis Ingram Seymour-Conway, and Francis Charles Seymour-Conway.
On the other hand, the taste of the fourth Marquis, Richard Seymour Conway, reflects the resurgence of the rococo style—during the reign of Napoleon III in France. It was Richard Wallace who focused on acquiring art objects, porcelains, armor, etc.
Wallace, born in Great Britain and raised in Paris, was more than just a collector: he was a true altruist. He gave the City of Light various sources of drinking water for low-income Parisians to quench their thirst during the Franco-Prussian War. At that time, the price of water was very high.
In 1879, Wallace founded the Hertford Hospital, also known as the British Hospital Paris, and distributed coal and money to buy food among the needy. He also put into operation two ambulances which were a kind of mini-hospitals.
Given the troubled French political atmosphere of the time, Wallace decided to move to London. However, his greatest act of philanthropy was evident after his death. His widow, in strict compliance with the wishes of Wallace, bequeathed his estate to the nation. The vast and exquisite Wallace Collection is today a source of pride for Britain.
The Wallace Collection is located at Hertford House, Manchester Square, W1U 3bn, London. ■
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