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Boxwood Miniature Triptych Early 16th century, Netherlands (© The Wallace Collection)

Tucked behind Oxford Street, perhaps the most consistently rammed of tourist spots in London, is a trove of applied arts and paintings that hardly anyone knows about. Compared to the big hitters — the Tate, the National Gallery, and the British Museum — the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square is way down the list of must-see destinations, which is a shame as it contains world artifacts of concentrated quality and breadth on a par with the British Museum over in Bloomsbury. Much of the work was inherited by Sir Richard Wallace, believed to be the illegitimate son of Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, from his father, before embarking on an eclectic collecting spree of his own. His generosity in gifting his collection of 5,637 objects to the nation, stipulated in the will of Lady Wallace in 1897, may have eventually proved to be its albatross; it is not allowed to change or leave its site at Hertford House.

Thus, curators have long had their hands tied regarding how they can reach out to engage new audiences. Stepping into this imposing red brick mansion is like entering a time capsule, where paintings hang amongst opulent rococo gilt furnishings, silk wallpapers, and tinkling chandeliers arranged as they were in the 1890s. There is little opportunity to rehang or introduce loans (but for a separate, unfurnished exhibition space in the basement), so mounting a ticket-selling blockbuster exhibition is simply not an option.

The Wallace’s new display, Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is an impressive and valiant attempt to promote itself while so straight-jacketed. 2018 is the 200th anniversary of Wallace’s birth, and curator Xavier Bray makes the story behind the man responsible for the collection the focal point of interest, framing him not just as collector, but as one of the first to display and arrange his collection in a role we would today recognize as a “director”. It is a very canny strategy.

In a new £1.2 million (~$1.6 million) basement exhibition space, an anteroom expounds his biography, in particular, his progressive philanthropic leanings in the arts. He was a member of several charitable and artistic committees, and in 1872 lent 2,000 items from his collection to the inaugural exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum in the East End of London, which was visited by more than two million members of the public.

The Bell of St Mura 11th-16th centuries, Ireland (© The Wallace Collection)

For the exhibition display, Bray has selected 25 pieces Wallace added to his inherited collection, which represent his eclectic eye, and love of fine detail and craftsmanship across various disciplines and geographical origins. A Netherlandish miniature boxwood triptych by Adam Dircksz and workshop (ca 1500-30) acquired in 1871, is an intricately carved portable item of Christian devotion. A bronze bell reputed to have belonged to Saint Mura is a relic shrine, containing layers of metalwork decoration added successively from the 11th through 16th centuries. A “Gold Cup of Eternal Stability” from Beijing made of, among other precious materials, kingfisher feathers and mother of pearl (the cup probably from 1739/40, the stand likely 19th century), and a gold trophy head from Asante, Ghana (18th or 19th century), indicate Wallace’s taste for more “exotic” items. Further eclecticism is evident in 17th-century portraits carved in colored wax, and a 15th century “Horn of St Hubert” (apparently owned by Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy) as well as fine examples of brightly-jeweled metalwork and cutlery.

The Wallace is arguably better known for its strong collection of paintings; 17th century Dutch works; expansive Francois Boucher allegories; Canalettos and Rembrandts; and Fragonard’s “The Swing” and Hals’s “Laughing Cavalier,” are iconic. These occupy the larger upstairs room, while its applied art collection is usually displayed en masse downstairs in more enclosed, dimly-lit rooms in old-school wooden cabinets, some covered by protective material. It is so vast, eclectic, and often overwhelming in appearance that it is difficult to single out and appreciate so many pieces in turn, to not consider it as a collective whole.

The suit of armour displayed made for Alfonso Il d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in Milan (© The Wallace Collection)

Taking 25 objects into the dark, low-ceilinged exhibition space and isolating them in identically sized, equally spaced display cabinets with single spotlights, not only enables close contemplation of each item’s story and unique visual properties, but makes for a thrillingly dramatic, intimate viewing experience. Similarly, the Wallace’s extensive permanent collection of European and Oriental armor is an embarrassment of riches displayed behind glass; the most elaborately decorated set of which is displayed in dramatic isolation here. Possibly made for Alfonso Il d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in Milan (ca 1575-90) it has opulent gold and silver sculpting and overlay in a Mannerist style, and was never actually intended for fighting. The whole is a modest display in terms of scale, but calculated for a powerful impact.

Gold Trophy Head 19th century or earlier, Asante (Ghana) (© The Wallace Collection)

If this exhibition represents a drive to exert the Wallace Collection’s presence among its London museum competitors as a destination of interest, shiny new website and all, it is lacking in a certain political current awareness. Much reportage for the display focused on the Asante (modern day Ghana) trophy head, one of 16 gold objects looted from the treasury of King Kofi Karakeri by the British during the Third Anglo-Ashanti War in 1873. In 1974 the Ghanaian government submitted restitution claims against several UK museums, which were rejected by the British government on the grounds that national museums are unable to deaccession.

In February 2018, Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, announced an exhibition of Ethiopian artefacts plundered during the Battle of Magdala in 1868 to highlight the issue of restitution in the wider context of historical colonialism, also floating the idea of long-term loaning the items to their original homeland as something approaching a possible solution. Where other museums are thus engaging an important and topical debate regarding the restitution of looted items, more acknowledgment of the Wallace’s role in this globally reaching problem should be made evident. Perhaps more engagement with this ongoing debate would have provided the contemporary relevance and public attention this enterprise is striving for.

Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector runs at the Wallace Collection, Hertford House in Manchester Square, London through January 9, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Xavier Bray.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...