Celebrating the philanthropic founder of the Wallace Collection
The Wallace Collection is a national museum of art collected in the 18th and 19th centuries, by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. This new space, built to mark the bicentenary of Wallace's birth, offers a modern perspective on this classic collection
The Collector, Exhibition © The Wallace Collection
A black and white print of 1888 shows a moustachioed gentleman in smoking jacket and cap who sits cradling a bronze figure in his hands. The urbane figure who looks enigmatically out at us is the art collector, connoisseur and philanthropist, Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), the founder of the Wallace Collection in London.
To mark the bicentenary of his birth, this summer the Wallace Collection opened a new £1.2 million exhibition space, and for its inaugural show it takes a look at Sir Richard’s personal contributions to the diverse and idiosyncratic collection it holds, as well as his philanthropic legacy.
Richard Wallace © The Wallace Collection
The result is a stunning show featuring over twenty works of art collected by Sir Richard. Entering the long main gallery at its mid-point, the first thing you see is a gold trophy head gleaming under a spot light. To either side of this masterpiece of African art other treasures wait in a line of glass cabinets spot-lit in the darkness: a glittering silver gilt ceremonial chain, a gorgeous grisaille Limoges dish, a pair of imperial ceremonial wine cups from China, a painted and gilded hunting horn reputedly a relic of St Hubert...
The beaten gold mask comes from the Asante kingdom (Ashanti), in modern-day Ghana. The region controlled the richest natural gold resources in West Africa, and the head was part of the fabulous treasure of King Kofi Karikari, which was seized by British soldiers during the Anglo-Asante war of 1873-4. Wallace bought it in London along with other ceremonial items.
The show starts with an introductory gallery telling Wallace’s story and briefly that of the Wallace Collection (as it is called today), which was begun in Paris by the Marquess of Hertford, and eventually brought to London by Wallace, supposedly the illegitimate son of the Fourth Marquess.
Beaten gold mask comes from the Asante kingdom, in modern-day Ghana. © The Wallace Collection
The room highlights not only Wallace’s eclectic collecting tastes - adding to the 18th-century French art and Old Master paintings he had inherited - but also his philanthropy. In the display is an image of a woman and child making use of one of the cast-iron drinking fountains for the poor he presented to the city after living through the Siege of Paris and the Commune, 1870–71 (today known as Les Fontaines Wallace).
The centrepiece here is a magnificent ostrich statuette made by the Augsburg silversmith Elias Zorer bought by Wallace in 1872, the year after Queen Victoria had made him a baronet in recognition of his charitable work during the Siege. His coat of arms includes an ostrich’s head with a horseshoe.
Boxwood statuette of Hercules, carved by Francesco Pomarano around 1520. © The Wallace Collection
A painting hung at the end of the main gallery commissioned by Wallace in 1880 from French still-life painter Blaise-Alexandre Desgoffe shows some of his most treasured works of art. Among them are: a boxwood statuette of a muscular Hercules swinging a club, carved by Francesco Pomarano around 1520; the Limoges dish (c1560) I mentioned above, telling the story of the sea-nymph Galatea; and a spectacular parade shield made in the mid-16th century for King Henry II of France. Made in Italy, probably in Milan, it shows a pseudo-historical scene of Carthage surrendering to the Roman general Scipio Africanus after the Battle of Zama (202 BC).
It is a peerless example of Wallace’s penchant for collecting weapons and armour - and his liking for items associated with famous historical figures. The decorative rapier inlaid with mother of pearl shown nearby is another example; it was a wedding gift given to Henry IV by the city of Paris on his marriage to Marie de’ Medici in 1600.
© The Wallace Collection
To say something is seen in a new light can seem a bit hackneyed, but here it’s really so: this new gallery space does enormous favours for the Wallace collection. It adds space and light and not simply in terms of display capacity, but breathing space for these wonderful items and visitors alike. No doubt, many visitors like me will be stimulated by this exhibition to go and explore the galleries upstairs, chock-full as they are of amazing, sometimes strange and sometimes superb paintings, sculpture, armour, and decorative arts - and will see them anew.
Entry to 'Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector' is free. Future exhibitions will be ticketed. The first paid exhibition will be Henry Moore: The Helmet Head Series (working title), presented in partnership with the Henry Moore Foundation.
Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector
Wallace Collection, London W1U 3BN
Until 6 January 2019 - FREE entry
For more information CLICK HERE