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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Visit a Hidden Gem in London's West End, and It's Free! Look at our Top 10 Things to see at The Wallace Collection.

Tucked in the streets behind Selfridges and overlooking the delightful, though private, Manchester Square gardens, The Wallace Collection is one of our favorite museums in London.  Less than a kilometer from our recent stay at the Langham London Hotel, we felt like we were in a daydream of artifacts and decided to stay longer at the cafe for afternoon tea.

Though largely famous for several well known paintings by Rembrandt, Velazquez and Titian, the museum is also home to an outstanding collection of european arms and armour, objects from the Renaissance period and important French furniture pieces including a desk belonging to Marie Antoinette. The collection was bequeathed to the nation in 1897.

What are our top four reasons that we love this museum?

  • We can only spend so long at a single museum before our heads start spinning from "cultural fatigue" and we are struggling to stay focused or find what we want. Smaller museums are often more manageable.
  • You will not encounter the large crowds like at the more popular Victoria and Albert Museum or the National Gallery
  • It is a unique perspective often highlighting the powerful women of the ages, like Madame de Pompadour and Marie-Antoinette
  • It is a peaceful and quiet area of London


Docent tours are offered almost daily but are limited to 25 persons.  Check the schedule here and make sure you get a sticker at the entrance to participate! 

Before you go, get a book on the highlights of the collection.  You can see our favorites and we will tell you why they are our favorites, but you may see other things the will interest you as well at this museum famous for its decorative arts!  This book published in Spring of 2020 is sure to please!  Please click on the photo below to learn more at Amazon and support our blog!  Thank you so much!!

One highlight of the museum is amazing until you hear the next one!  That is how we felt at the Wallace Collection.  There was always something else around the corner.  Here is our list of the most interesting items to ponder at The Wallace Collection in London:

1. Balustrade

It is hard to miss this artifact on the spectacular marble staircase when you enter the former home of the Marquesses of Hertford who were descendants of Queen Jane Seymour's family (one of the wives of Henry VIII). This is the only article in the whole collection that was specifically mentioned by Lady Wallace who bequeathed the collection to the country.  Originally part of the Royal Bank of France and the Library that followed, it was retrieved from a scrapyard and brought to the Hertford House where it was restored.  Lady Wallace feared that this piece of history would be overlooked and sold.  The romantic swirled iron balustrade on the second floor shows subtle floral hints, with bounties of fruit and coins (reflecting the Bank History) within the design and is cloaked in gold leaf.

2. Fragonard's "The Swing"9 (Oval Drawing Room)

This decadent composition all but shouts: “Let them eat cake!”  In the history of painting, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) is unmatched in its frivolity and over-the-top romance. At the center of the work, a young woman clothed in a billowing, ruffled, ballet-pink dress floats in a dramatically lit clearing, rocking above the ground on a crimson-cushioned swing. She flings her kitten-heeled shoe towards a mischievous cupid sculpture while she gazes at the man sprawled in the bushes beneath her. Her paramour wears a pewter-hued suit, extends a black tricorne hat into the brush, and looks up the woman’s skirt with what can only be described as the goofiest, most love-struck grin possible. In the shadows behind her, an older man—perhaps her cuckolded husband—pulls the swing’s reins.  Full of symbolism, such as the cupid statue is another potent erotic symbol.  modeled if off of the one made for Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress and a powerful art patron. In art a lost shoe often accompanies the more familiar broken pitcher as a symbol of lost virginity. 

3. Valazquez: The Lady with a Fan (Great Gallery)

Created around 1640, when Velázquez was King Philip IV of Spain’s favorite court painter, the identity of the sitter in this—arguably his most famous and emblematic portrait—has been much debated.  Valazquez was a master, much like Rembrandt, at producing wordless essays of the human condition.  Although officially the sitter's identity is unknown, latest theories suggest that it is Marie de Rohan, duchess of Chevreuse-a French aristocrat known to have been painted by Velázquez in Madrid in 1638.

4.  The Laughing Cavelier by Frans Hals (Great Gallery)

The first great painter of the Dutch Baroque art movement, Frans Hals is best-known for his lively and spontaneous style of portraiture, as exemplified by his masterpiece The Laughing Cavalier.  

Sometimes described as one of the greatest portrait paintings of the Baroque, The Laughing Cavalier received its name from the Victorian critics who attended the inaugural exhibition of the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872–75, where the work was first put on display to the public. The fact is, the sitter is neither a 'cavalier', nor is he laughing. He was a 26-year old citizen of Haarlem, by the name of Tieleman Roosterman. And judging by his elaborately embroidered silk doublet, lace collar and cuffs, he was both wealthy and fashion-conscious. Indeed, a close look at the motifs on his sleeve reveals a series of hearts and arrows, along with flaming torches, lover's knots and bees - all clear symbols of love and romance. Which suggests that the painting is likely to have been an engagement portrait. He certainly seems to have a twinkle in his eye, which itself is unusual, since portrait sitters were rarely painted smiling until the late eighteenth century.

5. Canaletto's Masterpieces:  Two Views of Venice (Great Gallery)

Imagine traveling before cameras or (gasp!) iPhones!  How would you record your travels? Paintings! 

Canaletto was the leading painter of city views, or vedute, in eighteenth-century Venice. Paintings depicting panoramic views of the city and its surrounding areas were highly prized by the travelers and art lovers who made the Grand Tour - the traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means. This lengthy trip to Italy and France was an essential part of the education of many English aristocrats in the 18th century. Like other visitors to Italy, they considered the view paintings to provide the ideal record of their youthful adventure.

6. Wateau: A Lady at her Toilet (Front State Room)

One of only three in the world (two others are in Berlin), A Lady at her Toilet depicts a lady who is seen putting on or removing a chemise, while her maid attends, proffering a gown. The figure of the lady is based on a vivid life drawing by the artist. It is known that Watteau moved in a ‘fast’ set, with whom he would spend evenings sketching from the female life model. It is probably these sketching sessions, and the influence of such company, that inspired the young artist to paint the licentious subjects of which he repented towards the end of his life.

7. Soft Paste Porcelain: Ecritoire 'à Globes' Inkstand (Back State Room)

We are no experts in pottery but we know that porcelain techniques are very difficult and were even more difficult in the 17th century.  The Wallace Collection has the largest collection of soft paste porcelain outside of Paris. With wonderfully fluid lines this porcelain inkstand combines all the ingenuity, technical brilliance and vibrant colors for which the Sèvres manufactory was renowned in the 18th century. The two globes acted as containers for ink and sand (for blotting) while under the crown a bell was hidden for summoning a servant to take away the written letters.


As she dips the tip of her quill in the inkwell hidden in the miniature celestial globe, she takes her eyes off her letter and lets her mind wander to contemplate the movement of the heavenly bodies..

Painted in the deep green ground and decorated with exuberant rococo ornaments, globes and winged putti, this écritoire, we think, is easily the most beautiful of its kind..

Do this suggest perhaps that a woman who touches the hearts of her correspondents with her letters is capable of moving the world?

8. Rembrandt: Titus, The Artist's Son (East Galleries I)

Originally the Wallace Collection was thought to have 12 original Rembrandts. However, Rembrandt was known to have a school with many pupils, and with the initiation of the Rembrandt Project in the 1970's, the Wallace Collection's 12 Rembrandts became 3.  This is by far the most touching of the Rembrandts at the Collection.  

This magnificent portrait represents Rembrandt’s only surviving child Titus at about age sixteen. Titus wears a sixteenth-century Venetian costume and a fantastic red beret out of which spill voluminous curls. A masterful portraitist, Rembrandt captured the young man’s captivating gaze and serious demeanour. Unlike other paintings by Rembrandt, the authenticity of this superb portrait has never been questioned.  During a very trying time of the family after the death of Titus' mother (around 1657), Rembrandt sympathetically captures the young man’s serious gaze. Titus went on to study painting with his father, but sadly died in the year of his marriage, 1668, before the birth of his own daughter, Titia. Rembrandt himself died the following year and was buried in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam. 

9. Marie Antoinette's Secretaire by Jean-Henri Riesener (The Study)

Courtesy of the Wallace Collection

All furniture that was not a piece or art was removed from Hertford House when the collection was bequeathed.  Of course much of the furniture you will view at the collection now is considered a piece art like several pieces who belonged to the doomed Queen of France:  Marie-Antoinette. Her husband, King Louis XVI, gave the Petit Trianon to her in 1774. Shortly after, she began an extensive refurnishing and landscaping project to tailor the existing building and the grounds to her taste.  This desk, with a fall-front that hides a number of small drawers and pigeon-holes and drops down to provide a writing surface.  The veneer decoration, with its lozenge pattern marquetry, is characteristic of the furniture Riesener supplied for the queen and other members of the royal family. Originally the marquetry would have been a much richer colour, but this has faded with time. The delicate gilt-bronze mounts, depicting flowers and ribbons, echo the flowers grown in the gardens of the Petit Trianon, and are typical of Marie-Antoinette’s love for the rural idyll.

10. Madame de Pompadour by Boucher (Oval Drawing Room)

Courtesy of the Wallace Collection

A lesson in tenacity and ingenuity are the very least we can learn from Madame de Pompadour. She was famous for the important position as an art patron and in politics that she obtained as Louis XV's mistress. Because of her great political intelligence, she successfully built and defended a highly influential position at the French court to a degree that was unusual for a mistress of the king.  Pompadour became royal mistress in 1745 and remained an important political advisor equivalent to a minister after her sexual relationship with the king had ceased. 

The Wallace Collection’s portrait, the last known portrait Boucher painted of his patron, evokes ideals by its inclusion of the sculpture of Friendship consoling Love, and the presence of Madame de Pompadour’s pet spaniel, Inès, here used as a symbol of fidelity. The parkland setting stresses the 'natural' and honest character of her relationship to the king. 


When you're done enjoying your docent tour or simply the things on our list that interest you, stop in cafe in the courtyard for afternoon tea or a coffee!  It is a lovely setting but protected from the rain that can sneak up on you at any minute in London!

If the weather is great, take a walk around the neighborhood to enjoy the exterior of the Hertford House, some of the gorgeous Georgian architecture and amazing cars you will see parked on the London streets nearby.

Bottom Line:

We love hidden gems when we travel.  While seeing the most famous museums in the world can be exhilarating, sometimes visiting a more obscure museum will be more meaningful, especially when you can take a docent tour to learn more information than a placard will tell you.  Use our guide to see our favorite things we found at the Wallace Collection that we feel are a good representation of the entire collection.  There were a few surprises that we didn't expect to see such as the lovely portrait of Madame de Pompadour, a lesson in enduring power as a woman when that was rarely possible and the whimsical Rococo painting: "The Swing." Pop in for an hour or so at least, and always remember, it's free!

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