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Collecting History at The Wallace Collection

January 19, 2015

ArtsGroup ExhibitionMixed Media | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford

George Cruikshank, An Excursion to R----- Hall, 1812,  © The Wallace Collection
George Cruikshank, An Excursion to R—– Hall, 1812,  © The Wallace Collection


Nestled amongst the stucco-squares of Marylebone sits an imposing red brick villa that once was one of the most sumptuous houses in London. This building –  Hertford House – contains the grandiose collection amassed by five generations of the Seymour-Conway lineage, bequeathed to the public in 1897. However despite being stuffed full with some of the world’s finest Old Master paintings, furniture, ceramics, arms and armour, the Wallace Collection is often over looked by modern audiences.


The widow of the fifth generation Sir Richard Wallace, who died in 1897, stipulated that the collection could not be moved, loaned, sold or enlarged – making marketing the museum an increasingly difficult prospect. A static collection that lacks a core focus becomes stagnant and disconnected. It is the legacy of a family’s spending, in situ, yet what it has always seemed to me to lack, is some context.


Charles Ansell Williams, He Has Put His Foot In It, 1812,  © The Wallace Collection
Charles Ansell Williams, He Has Put His Foot In It, 1812,  © The Wallace Collection


Curated much like a country estate, you wander between functionless rooms full of artworks and objects that decorate the walls as if grouped by an interior designer rather than a curator. The house has lost its character to the will of the artworks. No furniture remains, and the rooms become a trail of paintings leading from one to the next. Even the lack of signage leaves a disconcerting air of academia – if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re stuck.


It is only now, with the arrival of this exhibition, that the nature of the collection is explored. Through letters, inventories, artworks, and portraits, this small show builds a concise timeline of the family, their ambitions, and how this is reflected in what each member added. As an exhibition in itself, it does nothing innovative or interesting. Each of the two small rooms focuses on the family, split into the earlier and later generations. They are identified in portraits, given a summary, then placed next to a few small examples of the sort of art they liked to collect – silver, porcelain, or miniatures, from Regency to Rococo. It also provides on text panels, a little background in to how the procurement of the pieces worked – old auction catalogues and art dealers’ inventories offer a delightful insight into the workings of the 19th century art world. The exhibition displays no particular great art works and most of the things on display are personal documents – but they shine important light on the history of one of the nation’s best bequeaths. It provides what The Wallace Collection has always needed – context and narrative, enabling the visitor to fully enjoy the real treasures, which remain in the rooms upstairs.


Charles Ansell Williams, Manchester Square Cattle Shew, 1812,  © The Wallace Collection
Charles Ansell Williams, Manchester Square Cattle Shew, 1812,  © The Wallace Collection


Collecting History is on at The Wallace Collection until 15th of February. For more information go to http://www.wallacecollection.org/collections/exhibition/107 


Harry Seymour