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Collecting the Wallace Collection: the comte de Nieuwerkerke

Have you ever wondered how collections like the Wallace Collection come about? Was it the careful selection of one object after another or a mass impulse buy at an auction? Are they shaped by fashions or personal tastes? Suzanne Higgott, our Curator of Glass, Limoges Painted Enamels & Earthenwares, has been exploring how the medieval and renaissance collection was acquired and how much we owe to one man, the comte de Nieuwerkerke.

1870 was not a year Richard Wallace would easily forget. The illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, for whom he worked as a secretary, Wallace only discovered his parentage when he inherited his father’s un-entailed estates and art collection in August 1870.  From proverbial rags to riches overnight, Wallace now had the means to indulge his own taste and passion for art.

For Alfred-Émilien, comte de Nieuwerkerke, the year 1871 was one which he would remember vividly. France was in the middle of political upheaval following the Franco-Prussian War, the fall of the Second Empire and the Paris commune. As surintendant des Beaux-Arts under Napoleon III and the long-term lover of Napoleon’s cousin, the Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, the comte de Nieuwerkerke had been at the epicentre of the Second Empire artistic and social establishments, so for him the fall of the Empire could only have been devastating. His personal collection of around 800 objects, which he had carefully built up, now had to sacrificed to fund his self-imposed exile to Lucca.

Here the stories of our two men collide. Wallace was eager to purchase such a spectacular and renowned collection of medieval and renaissance works of art and arms and armour, while Nieuwerkerke was mollified to find a buyer who would keep his collection together ‘en bloc’. In August 1871 Wallace bought the collection from Nieuwerkerke for 600,000 francs. Nieuwerkerke’s collection now forms the nucleus of the medieval and Renaissance collections at the Wallace Collection

 

Nieuwerkerke’s receipt to Wallace, dated 19 August 1871, for payment of 300,000 francs of the 600,000 francs. Wallace Collection Archives

 

At the Wallace Collection, Nieuwerkerke’s contribution has been carefully researched, helped enormously by the survival of the original receipts for his purchases from the Parisian dealers that Nieuwerkerke passed on to Wallace. Now in the Wallace Collection’s Archive, these provide a fascinating insight into the range of works of art sold by individual dealers at the time, the prices the works achieved and Nieuwerkerke’s pattern of collecting.

 

Receipt from E.Lowengard to the comte de Nieuwerkerke, 19 January 1867. It is annotated with Wallace Collection 1920 work of art numbers. Wallace Collection Archives

Receipt from E.Lowengard to the comte de Nieuwerkerke, 19 January 1867. It is annotated with Wallace Collection 1920 work of art numbers. Wallace Collection Archives

 

The survival of the receipts alongside the collection is exceptional for the period, so a case study of Nieuwerkerke’s acquisition of some beautiful Renaissance glasses and a mosque lamp, drawing on the receipts, provided a fascinating subject for a recent conference on glass collecting.

 

Goblet, Unknown Artist / Maker, France (façon de Venise), mid-16th century ; Mosque Lamp, Unknown Artist / Maker Cairo, Egypt, c. 1350 - 1357

Goblet, Unknown Artist / Maker, France (façon de Venise), mid-16th century; Mosque Lamp, Unknown Artist / Maker
Cairo, Egypt, c. 1350 – 1357

 

If you’d like to find out more about the conference the paper has been published online and can be found on pp. 119–130.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief look into the men who have helped shape our Collection. If you have any other questions about the Wallace Collection’s Archive and our current research please contact library@wallacecollection.org.

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