On 22 October 2012 the Wallace Collection closed its doors on its biggest gallery for 18 months. Curatorial Assistant, Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado, describes the intricate planning required to move and re-display over 200 priceless works of art.
Originally built in 1871 when Sir Richard Wallace re-developed the house, it was used to display the superb 17th-century Old Master Collection he had inherited from his father. It was designed to be the largest gallery in the Hertford House and the culmination of the tour of the Wallace Collection for its visitors.
For the first time in 30 or so years the Great Gallery is undergoing a refurbishment; not only will it have new silks on the wall and a lick of paint, but it will also have a new glass ceiling (very similar to the one Sir Richard Wallace had originally) which will allow diffused natural light into the room. The Gallery was cleared by Christmas last year and then began the projected 15 months building work.
The Great Gallery before work began
The question of what to do with the 56 paintings, 36 pieces of furniture and 10 or so sculptures that used to reside in the Great Gallery during this time posed quite a dilemma. Due to the scale of the project and the fact that the roof was coming off, closing half of the gallery and keeping the other side open; allowing visitors to see objects, was out of the question. Therefore, all the objects had to be stored somewhere… so, where? A busy programme of exhibitions that had been booked up years before meant that the exhibition gallery was not an option. The Reserve Gallery on the Lower Ground Floor was already very full of objects and we knew that there was certainly not enough floor space to store all of the furniture.
We had to begin by working out what exactly needed to be stored. We knew that having such masterpeices as The Laughing Cavalier and the Lady with a Fan out of sight for 18 months was simply non-negotiable. Therefore, a priority list of paintings that were too important to our visitors and school groups was made.
Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624
Once this list was fully decided upon the process of working out where these pictures would be re-displayed got underway. There was consensus from the start that in order to give the visitor a clear route through the Collection and a coherent overview of our holdings, the re-display had to only affect certain rooms, and also would be best if it was done in themes.
The most recently refurbished rooms were on the whole left alone, and rooms with fairly large areas of spare wall space were, most logically, chosen. Rooms such as the Large Drawing Room, Dining Room and West Gallery were settled upon as the main galleries, with other rooms such as the 16th Century Gallery, Smoking Room and Billiard Room taking the odd picture.
Dr Lucy Davis, Curator of Old Master Pictures for the Collection, came up with the themes for each of the main rooms. The Dining Room was to become the Spanish/Italianate room taking such paintings as Diego Velazquez’s Lady with a Fan, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Shepherds and Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda, once owned by Philip II of Spain. The Large Drawing Room, with its proximity to the newly refurbished East Galleries and the East Drawing Room, was to become the Flemish themed room; housing Frans Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier and Rembrant’s Pellicorne family portraits. Finally, the West Room was to become the British Portrait Room with favourites such as Joshua Reynold’s Nelly O’Brian, Mrs Carnac and Mrs Robinson (Perdita).
Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs Mary Robinson (Perdita), 1781
In total, 26 paintings, 6 sculptures, and 3 pieces of sculpture out of 92 will remain on display. We have worked closely with the Education and Events departments to try our best to keep works on display for their activities. Each of the re-display rooms were hung within a three week period by a team of around six members of Conservation, Curatorial and external art and object handlers.
The rest of the pictures are being stored in the specially adapted mansard area on the top floor, re-named the Reserve Gallery II. Work has already begun here and we now have moved 50 small pictures up to the mansard in order to create more space. However, we realised that these two storage areas had enough space only for pictures and not 3D objects like sculpture and furniture and certainly not enough space for our four massive pictures, one of which, George IV by Thomas Lawrence, is 3.5 m high and 2.5 meters wide.
Thomas Lawrence, George IV, 1822
We needed a space that wasn’t going to disrupt the visitor’s route, that had the floor space to house furniture from the Great Gallery, but also from the reserve (which would allow easier access to wall space in the reserve gallery). The decision was taken to close European Armoury III and to erect a mezzanine, to take all the Great Gallery furniture plus some furniture from the Reserve Gallery. This, in turn, created space for the larger pictures to be hung in the Reserve Gallery.
The process has been very much like one of those scrambled picture puzzles where one has to shunt the little square around to make the whole picture. By the end of the project I estimate that around 200 objects, if not more, will have been moved around the Wallace Collection.
This project has given me the opportunity to look even more closely at, and handle some of our most prized works of art. I discovered, for example, what the backs of the paintings look like; Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda frame is so fragile we couldn’t set it down on the frame.
Conservation team moving Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda into its new position in the Dining Room
Often simply moving them to a new gallery has given them a new lease of life and has allowed visitors to explore new conversations and exchanges between the works of art.
By Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado