Overwhelming. That’s the first word that springs to mind when I try to describe what it is like to traipse around the 25 galleries that make up the Wallace Collection. There’s so much art here — mainly French 18th century paintings, along with furniture, ceramics, jewellery, sculpture and armour — that it’s hard to know where to start, much less take it all in and appreciate exactly what it is you are looking at.
The once private collection was created by the Seymour family in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was bequeathed to the nation in 1897 and opened up to the public in 1900.
I’ve long wanted to visit, but like most people who live and work in London, there never seems to be the time. But now, with six weeks of freedom at my disposal while I wait for a new job to start, that excuse no longer applies. And so, today, I spent an hour or so browsing the two floors of art works housed in Hertford House, one of the family’s London properties.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer over-the-top nature of the furniture and fittings in the galleries on the ground floor, which are from the Rococo period: think lots of gleaming gold and gilt-bronze, decorative curlicues, ornate woodwork and fanciful reliefs. It was like stepping into an 18th century French novel.
Upstairs was less fussy, but all of the galleries were stuffed to the brim with “showy” and ostentatious art work. I was quite partial to the gallery featuring 18th century Italian paintings — 19 of which are by Canaletto — and another showcasing Old Masters, such as Rubens and Rembrandt, probably because they were less flamboyant than the French stuff.
But it was the Arms and Armour section that really impressed me: more than 2,000 objects, from Europe and the Orient, including swords, firearms, helmets and suits of armour (for men and horses), immaculately laid out in two large galleries. The ornate decoration on the suits of armour, in particular, was just astonishing: everything was delicate and precise, as if they were objects of beauty in their own right and not something to wear to protect the body from certain death.
I came away from my visit feeling slightly dazzled: there was simply too much to take in and I didn’t fully understand the importance of what I was looking at. But it was definitely an interesting way to spend an hour or two on a lazy Monday afternoon. True art buffs must really love it.
It’s free to visit the Wallace Collection, which is just a short walk from Oxford Street. There’s a lovely “secret” restaurant in the courtyard and a (tiny) gift shop. To find out more, visit the official website.