LONDON has a wealth of museums devoted to the arts. Many are big hitters with vast collections that one can get lost in for days.
But the city is also home to smaller gems which visitors can enjoy without the crowds. One of these is The Wallace Collection, situated in Hertford House on Manchester Square, only a block away from Selfridges on Oxford Street. Yet even many Londoners do not know of its existence.
The museum owns some 5,500 objects, including Old Masters paintings, collections of 18th century art and furnishings and full suits of Medieval and Renaissance armour. What makes it thoroughly engaging is how vividly the past is brought to life in rooms once inhabited by the Seymour Conway family, better known as the Marquesses of Hertford.
Each era of the collection showcases furnishings, chandeliers, paintings and porcelain exhibited together. The visitor thus gains an overall sense of the visual grandeur of the period while viewing up close some of the finest art and craft of the time.
Much of the collection was bought by the third and fourth Marquesses of Hertford, who were avid art collectors with a keen eye. Following the French Revolution in 1789, many of the possessions of the aristocracy were dispersed. This provided an opportunity for English collectors with financial means to buy up their artworks and furnishings as they appeared at auction. By the time the fourth Marquess died in 1870, leaving his collection to his son, Richard Wallace, he had amassed an outstanding selection of 18th century artefacts, some of which had belonged to the French royal family.
The authorities at Versailles might relish the opportunity to reclaim the furnishings that once populated the palace. It is doubtful that Louis XV ever thought that the Rococo chest of drawers in his bed chamber would one day be housed in a London museum; or that three vases from his Sèvres porcelain collection would, centuries later, share a glass display case with a tea tray bought on the same day in 1759 by his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Surely Marie-Antoinette would be bemused to find her perfume burner and writing desk admired by commoners in England.
The Wallace Collection is a feast not only for art lovers but also for social historians. The well-informed museum guides lead tours of the collection wherein they interweave political and art history with intriguing domestic details. A porcelain inkstand, for example, displays the initials MA along with the coat of arms of unmarried French princesses. This detail proves that it belonged to the daughter of Louis XV, Marie Adélaïde, rather than Marie Antoinette, an Austrian Archduchess prior to her marriage to Louis XVl. It contains a small crown in which a bell was placed in order to summon a servant to deliver any letters to one of the nine postal collections Parisians enjoyed at the time.
The Wallace Collection is known for its French art, yet it richly represents other regions of Europe too. The Italian room contains a dozen Canaletto canvases of Venice, three times the number to be found in Venice itself. The works in the three Dutch galleries range from scenes of 17th century domestic life to portraits by Rembrandt. The vast Long Gallery is packed with 17th century Old Masters including Poussin, Titian, Velasquez, Rubens, Van Dyke and Frans Hals.
The Armoury collection is second in size only to that of Queen Elizabeth. Since I have no stomach for war, the rooms shocked rather than thrilled me. Cases are filled with suits of armour, swords and firearms — a display of gruesome weaponry. This collection is surely of great interest to scholars of Medieval warfare but will equally delight children who enjoy playing with toy soldiers. Except here they will find the real thing — pacifists be warned.
The Wallace Collection merits a visit of several hours. When stamina begins to flag, The Wallace restaurant provides a warm welcome and an opportunity to recharge. It is set in a courtyard that is covered by a glass roof through which sunlight streams. Elegant yet relaxed, the peaceful space is surrounded by salmon pink walls and dotted with large trees in pots and urns on pedestals. Sipping a cucumber, elderflower, apple and mint cocktail evoked summertime despite the temperamental British weather.
A leisurely lunch offered local ingredients expertly prepared with creative twists. The menu combined French brasserie classics with quintessential English dishes. A crab salad was both beautiful and satisfying. A quenelle of white crab meat mixed with finely chopped chives was accompanied by shaved radish and fennel on a slick of avocado cream. Small cubes of apple macerated in cider vinegar introduced both textural and flavour contrast.
A terrine wrapped in Parma ham contained meaty chunks of pheasant and venison, as befitted the game season. It was paired with a creamy celeriac remoulade.
Braised lamb shoulder with cannon of lamb was beautifully presented. Meltingly tender slices of lamb cannon and a disc of deeply flavoured braised shoulder were paired with a smoked carrot puree. Pan roasted lemon sole was topped with shrimp and capers and surrounded with a butter sauce which complemented this gentle dish.
Rhubarb was a vision in pink and perfectly poached. Long strips of fruit shared the plate with a vanilla Chantilly cream, a scatter of tiny meringues and shortbread crumbs. A drizzle of lemon balm leaves revealed themselves as a perfect accompaniment to the tart fruit.
Mint tea in traditional Japanese pots brought an artful lunch to a close.
Visitors to London may wish to visit the armoury at Buckingham Palace, brave the crowds at the National Gallery to view the Old Masters, and hop on the Eurostar to Paris to enjoy the Sèvres porcelain at Versailles. Alternatively they can visit the Wallace Collection, where a large selection of all these works can be enjoyed under one roof. With an excellent lunch or afternoon tea on offer in the restaurant, this is a museum well worth adding to the itinerary.