Exploring the Magnificent Treasures of The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection

Collecting antiques is all about falling in love with a period in history that speaks to you. Whether it represents a connection to your heritage or simply fills your soul with joy, antiques evoke emotions that inspirit us to collect them.

It’s interesting to see what famous collectors amass in their own private collections. When you have vast wealth, you can acquire anything in the world. But do they always have good taste?

One of the most famous collections in the world is the Wallace Collection with more than 5,500 antiques, artefacts and works of art collected by three generations of the wealthy Wallace family:

  1. Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford (1777 – 1842)
  2. Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800 – 1870)
  3. Sir Richard Wallace 1st Baronet of Hertford (1818 – 1890)

Sir Richard Wallace was one of six siblings and it is rumoured he was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. And yet, despite his questionable birth his father bequeathed the entire collection to him when he died.

During his lifetime, Sir Richard continued to add to the collection and showed a particular interest in ancient artefacts. His passion was his armoury collection that makes up 44% of the entire collection.

Sir Richard was so proud of his collection, he wanted to share it with the world. In 1873, the whole collection was shipped over from Paris and set up in the Bethnal Green Museum in London. It was the most incredible exhibition of its time, showcasing a collection rich in 18th and 19th century art, furniture, sculptures and decorative arts and more than a hundred years of collecting. It drew a crowd of 4 million visitors. Sir Richard knew then that the collection should be on display.

Sir Richard left the entire collection to his wife, Lady Wallace, who bequeathed it to the nation of Great Britain upon her death in 1897. The Wallace Collection is now housed in the House of Hertford in London, and is one of the most impressive collections in the world, consisting of:

  • 775 Paintings, watercolours and drawings
  • 528 Pieces of furniture
  • 510 Ceramics
  • 2,370 European and Oriental arms and armour
  • 466 Sculptures
  • 334 Miniatures
  • 363 Medieval and Renaissance works of art
  • 120 Goldsmith works

The collection takes you on a virtual journey through history covering three floors and about ten rooms filled to the brim with extraordinary pieces. Two rooms are dedicated to paintings, one for the great European masters and one for the famous Dutch artists; a separate wing was specially built for the medieval armoury collection; and dotted around the museum are the most iconic pieces of furniture from the courts of Louis the XIV and XV, as well as objects owned by Marie Antoinette. It’s the kind of place you want to visit to educate yourself in antiques and the history of styles and fashion to find what sparks your own passion. And the best part is, admission is free. It truly is the ‘People’s Collection’.

So what are the highlights of The Wallace Collection and what can they tell you about antiques and history?

The Laughing Cavalier (1624)

Though there are more famous paintings in the collection, The Laughing Cavalier by Dutch painter Frans Hals attracts the biggest crowd of admirers. The fourth marquess acquired this painting in 1865 at auction for $2,650, bidding against Baron James Mayer de Rothschild. Not much is known about the subject of the painting, but his style of dress and the expectant look in his eye give away certain clues. For instance, he must have been of notable birth as he is wearing silk, a lace ruff and a jacket embroidered with gold thread. The detail in the jacket is remarkable with a stylish array of romantic symbols, like Cupid’s arrow, a love knot made of hearts, and bees. From all these clues we can deduce this happy chap was about to be married to the love of his life. This is just one of hundreds of valuable oil paintings in the collection.

Armour For Man and Horse (1480)

It is very rare for armour to survive the battles of war from the Middle Ages, but The Wallace Collection boasts this complete set for the warrior and his horse. Just one of three complete equestrian armours, it weighs an incredible 67.4 kg in total. Aside from the later additions of brass, the armour is made of iron, carbon steels, leather, felt, canvas, wood, and copper alloys. It was made by Ulrich Rambs in Germany in the 15th Century, as marked on the horse’s face plate.

Armoire Clock by Andre-Charles Boulle (1715)

This is an extraordinary piece made by the most prominent French cabinet maker of the 18th Century. Known for his luxurious pieces and creations for the Louis XIV courtiers, this wardrobe houses a long case clock made of gold. Boulle was known for his marquetry work and for incorporating rare materials like tortoiseshell and onyx. The pattern on the clock is almost modern in design and you can see the influence it has had on French fashion and jewellery designers like Van Cleef & Arpels.

Imperial Wine Cups, Qing Dynasty (c.1700)

There are only four of these Chinese wine cups from the 18th Century in existence in the world and The Wallace Collection has two of them. One is made entirely of gold, the other of brass and is believed to be the prototype. Both are decorated in exquisite jewels like pearls, rubies, and sapphires, with a vivid blue background made from kingfisher feathers. They are ceremonial cups made for the Qianlong Emperor to ring in the Chinese New Year. They are a significant piece of history.

The Wallace Collection is the ideal place to get a sense of history and the antiques of the period. Many antique dealers visit The Wallace Collection with their clients to get a sense of the history of collecting and how to display their antiques. While most of these rare objects are beyond most of our wildest dreams, it helps educate a growing community of collectors and give them a good reference point of where to begin.

If you had enormous wealth, what would you collect?

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