The Wallace Collection


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From the Archive: Tales of the unexpected at the Wallace Collection

How did Hertford House change to become a museum? How did the Collection survive two World Wars? What’s the connection to Winston Churchill? Discover all this and more in the second of two blogs by archivist Carys Lewis on the secrets of the Wallace Collection

My last post focused on the history of the collectors and Hertford House but what can thee archives tell us about the museum’s history?

The Wallace Collection opened to the public on June 22 1900. Lady Wallace’s heir and former secretary John Murray Scott was appointed the first chairman of the Wallace Collection Board of Trustees; he remained as chairman until his sudden and dramatic death in 1912. Trustee minutes in the archive reveal that: ‘Sir John Scott was taken ill in the Boardroom about 12.30pm on Wednesday 17 January. At the moment of his seizure he was conversing on the history of the Collection, and giving the Keeper notes on various objects contained in it. He died little more than an hour later’.

The Trustee minutes reveal everything from the pressures of war to the smaller but essential details of museum life. For example, in November 1911, the minutes note that the Keeper reported that a vacuum cleaner would be of ‘great usefulness…for removing dirt of all kinds from the hot water trenches, picture frames, cases, walls and floors, and so diminishing the quantity of dust that falls upon the tapestry covered furniture and other works of art.’ On the outbreak of the First World War the Trustee minutes noted that fire extinguishing equipment was purchased in case the Wallace Collection took a direct hit in aircraft raids. You can read more about the Wallace Collection during the First World War here.


WW1 store

One of my favourite items in the archive is a register of the staff. The register contains several unexpected reasons for dismissal for early members of staff, the most common are either being drunk or asleep on duty but others include associating with people of ‘dissolute character’ or for fighting with other members of staff. The register also reveals that the first woman to be employed at the Wallace Collection in an office based role was Miss Hilda Goody, a temporary Typist and Clerical Assistant, who worked here from 1918-1922. Prior to her employment the only women featured in the register are Charwomen or female attendants.


Image 4 Staff register

Files in the archive show that planning for the possible evacuation of the Collection in case of another war started as early as 1933. Meetings were held on a regular basis throughout the mid-1930s and when the Munich Crisis occurred in 1938 the rarest Sèvres and majolica in the Collection was packed as a precaution. Priority lists were drawn up and practice drills held so when on August 23 1939 the Home Office gave the word ‘GO!’ to all the National Museums and Galleries to evacuate, the Wallace Collection was ready.


WW2 Picture

In fact they were so prepared that when Sir James Mann, the Director of the Museum at the time, returned from the continent on August 28 he found ‘Hertford House practically empty’. Between August 24 and September 4 the vast majority of the Collection was transported in 28 lorry journeys to Hall Barn and Balls Park. As with most national museums and galleries, the Collection remained outside of London for the duration of the Second World War.


WW2 Letter 2 pg 1

Hertford House itself had many lucky escapes during the blitz, on the night of September 18/19 1940 a high explosive bomb fell in the front garden but did surprisingly little damage. Incendiary bombs fell on the roof in November 1940 and May 1941, warder staff put the fires out before any more than slight damage to the woodwork was caused.


Bomb Damage 09_1940

Hertford House was not completely empty during the war as it was made available for temporary exhibitions, including the Arts and Crafts (1941) and Artists Aid Russia (1942) exhibitions. Below is a catalogue for the latter exhibition signed by Sir Winston Churchill, and was auctioned for Mrs Churchill’s Aid for Russia fund and presented to the Wallace Collection by Sir Alec Martin in 1942.


Image 6 WW2 exhibition catalogue

The decision not to commandeer the Collection for war use, the Geographical Section of the Admiralty Intelligence Department worked in the upper floors during World War One, was taken due to the ‘expense of making good the deterioration of the inside of the building after occupation by government departments’. Clearly with threats coming from the air, the Government and Trustees did not wish to fear from a threat within!

I hope you have enjoyed hearing some of the tales the archive tells us about the history of the Wallace Collection and its collectors. If you would like to find out more information about anything I’ve mentioned or view any of the documents in the archive then please contact The Wallace Collection archive is open Tuesday to Friday 10am – 5pm by appointment.


Dear Marie,

A very interesting glimpse of the Wallace during the two wars. As an impoverished student in the late 50s with no money to heat my room, I remember the Wallace as my sanctuary in which to write my essays in some warmth & quiet. On weekdays it was virtually empty until the ‘ladies who lunch’ came in about 3pm. One of your kind attendants saw me trying to balance my books on my knees & led me to a desk where I could work. It wasn’t until much later I found it was Marie Antoinette’s!

Margaret Devitt on 28 July 2015