September 18, 2020

The Wallace Collection, London’s El Dorado | Babelia


On June 25, 1900, the Wallace collection opened at Hertford House in Manchester Square, with more than 5,000 pieces collected over the years by four generations of the aristocratic Hertford family. The palace had been the London residence of the donors, Sir Richard Wallace and his wife, Julie Amélie Charlotte. Since then, it has only closed its doors during the two world wars and now during the pandemic, since March 18. The reopening, on July 15, offers a reduced schedule and the capacity cannot exceed 210 people (1,500 in normal times). Entry to the permanent collection is free.

Considered the finest collection of French art of the 18th century, the Wallace is a summation of contributions from the successive Marquises of Hertford, who since the 18th century were art lovers, Francophiles and very close to the Crown. Richard Wallace (1818-1890) was his last descendant, although as a bastard he could not wear the title of nobility that would have corresponded to him. However, he had the luxury of bequeathing it to the British people with his maternal surname: Wallace.

Perseus and Andromeda, by Titian, on loan to the National Gallery, London.
Perseus and Andromeda, by Titian, on loan to the National Gallery, London.

The Richard Wallace story brings together all the ingredients to become one of those wonderful period series on British television. His was a life chiseled by prejudice, treachery, conspiracies, and outright money. Illegitimate son of the fourth Marquis of Hertford, social conveniences caused him to spend his early years in Paris. Although there are no official versions, it seems that the boy lived with his father, Richard Seymour-Conway, and some nanny of his aristocratic blood family. Baptized in London under the false surname of Jackson, he himself took care of registering under his mother’s surname in 1842 in the Anglican church in Paris. With comings and goings to his country of origin, France was the setting from which the family collection was enlarged with the direct intervention of Richard Wallace as his father’s secretary and assistant. Between 1843 and 1870 they acquired European painting from the 14th century to the mid-19th century. From that time came the additions of the jewels in the collection: oil paintings by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals, Velázquez, Poussin, Canaletto, Gainsborough or Lawrence, among many others.

Richard Wallace enjoyed himself and bought huge amounts of art and antiques in Paris. But he has also gone down in history for his philanthropic work during the siege of the Prussian troops in Paris in 1870. He created field hospitals, distributed food to civilians and, among many other things, had many installed in the city center. drinking water sources, known as the wallace. During this time, he married Julie Amélie Charlotte, an actress whom he had met in a perfumery and with whom he had a son, Edmond, who died of a heart attack before he was 24 years old.

'La dama del abanico', by Velázquez.
‘La dama del abanico’, by Velázquez.

Xavier Bray, director of the museum, says that the transfer of the bulk of the collection from Paris to London was done in secret to avoid the anger of the French. While the palace was available as a residence, he exhibited all the works in Bethnal Green, a space in north London inhabited by the working class and the solemn poor. It is estimated that more than five million people passed through the rooms over three years. The collection, Bray says, always had a legendary aura. It was received as if it were El Dorado. His fame transcended to the point that it can be stated that the New York Frick Collection It is a carbon copy of the Wallace.

As with many donations, patrons imposed a number of conditions that go beyond name and location. The most important requires that the collection has to remain together without modification. Until now it had been understood that the possibility of lending or receiving loans for temporary exhibitions was prohibited, the only ones for which it is charged in a public institution in which the State contributes 40% of the expense. To complete the rest, the museum has to make a living. But the pandemic totally hinders this entry of money, so that a recent interpretation of the conditions of transfer means that it is possible to allow the exit and entry of works. “Wallace was a very generous man, not at all restrictive. I’m sure he never wanted to cloister his collection ”, clarifies the director. One of the most notable outputs has been Perseus and Andromeda by Titian for the exhibition Titian: love, desire, death at the National Gallery in London, which in March 2021 can be seen at the Prado Museum.

The director of the Wallace does not believe that Brexit will make life worse for English museums. Remember that the Wallace is an example of a European collection and points to the fact that the Wallace couple rests with their son in the Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery.

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