London – Wallace Collection

People say vaguely, “The Wallace Collection? Oh, yes, I really must go some day; I’ve heard of it so many times,” and the “some day” recedes and London is left behind and that most delightful place remains unseen.

And yet this treasure-house is so easy to reach. The shopper at Debenham and Freebody’s need only turn up Duke Street at the corner where Wigmore Street embraces Lower Seymour Street, and there is Manchester House at the far side of Manchester Square.

If you have only a short time to spend there, give it all to the French pictures. They are the piece de resistance of the Wallace Collection, gathered by two men who loved France and spent most of their lives there. The story of the Hertfords who made the Wallace Collection is almost as interesting as anything in their house. The first Marquess of Hertford had thirteen children, and the portraits he asked Reynolds to paint of two of his daughters (Nos. 31 and 33) were the nucleus of the collection. The second marquess only added Reynolds’ ” Nelly O’Brien ” and the Romney ” Perdita.”

His son was the celebrated Marquess of Hertford whose meteoric career enlivened the first half of the last century-the original of both Thackeray’s Marquis of Steyne and Lord Beaconsfield’s Coningsby, whose wealth, wit and reckless egoism provided food for gossip for many a year. It was for him that Decimus Burton built St. Dunstan’s in Regent’s Park, and he filled it with objets d’art of all kinds, and a number of pictures, chiefly of the Dutch school.

His son, Richard Seymaur-Conway, fourth Marquess of Hertford, spent his life in amassing, with the help of Sir Richard Wallace, the collection that is now the property of the British nation. M. Yriarte, a French art expert who knew this eccentric nobleman well, published an account of his curious life in the Pall Mall Magazine for September 1900, but it is not possible to give the details now.

Sir Richard Wallace inherited his wealth and his pictures. His name is legendary here in England, but in Paris it is a household word, for every thirsty street urchin calls the graceful bronze drinking fountains he put all over the city ” un Vallace.”

M. Francisque Sarcey, who never met Sir Richard Wallace, has expressed in the dedication of his Le Siege de Paris something of the feeling Parisians had for this Englishman who stayed in the city, sharing their perils and discomforts and proving his sympathy by immense gifts. Luckily for us, his friendship did not induce him to leave the Hertford Collection to France. He had always shared his father’s passion for collecting, and began to buy pictures as a young man. The Corot, Rousseau’s lovely Forest Glade, and the enchanting fresco on plaster of a Boy Reading ‘by the Milanese artist Foppa, are among the works he bought.

To come back to the French pictures: there is no example of Chardin’s work (to see ” Le Benedicite ” you must go to the Louvre), but there are eight pictures by his pupil Fragonard, and if the Louvre has ” The Music Lesson,” Hertford House has the ” Gardens of the Villa d’Este.”

I think the Fragonards must be seen if there is time for nothing else; not because Fragonard is a greater artist than the others, but because his work may be better studied here than in his own country.

There is a lovely interior of Fragonard’s in the National Gallery, and a ” Lady with a Dog ” in the Tennant Collection, 34 Queen Anne’s Gate, but I am informed that the present occupiers of the Glenconner mansion do not follow the generous custom of the owners in admitting the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays from two to six.

The eccentric Marquess’s statement, ” I only like pleasing pictures,” perhaps accounts for the number of Greuze canvases-over a score; but the collection is particularly rich in eighteenth-century French painters – Largilliere, Watteau, Nattier, Lancret, Vernet, Van Loo, Boucher, etc.

If you have time for two visits, spend the second with the Dutch pictures, where the Rembrandt portraits almost console me for the absence of Vermeer’s. One must go to the National Gallery to see the ” Lady at the Virginal.”

Among the fifty-seven artists represented, there are many old friends, Frans Hals, Brouwer, Van Ostade, Gerard Dou, Terborch, Wouverman with his inevitable white horse, six of the excellent Ruysdaels-that somehow never give me as much pleasure as Metsu’s charming pictures-Hobbema, the Flemish Teniers, and eight Rubens (he is more likeable here than in the Louvre).

Of course there are numberless other treasures. A very complete catalogue will tell you all about them, but I hope I have made you want to go and buy that catalogue.