Wallace Youth is the Wallace Collection’s youth panel, formed in October 2015, to encourage young people from the Westminster borough to have a voice within their local cultural institution. In this blog, they interview our new Director, Dr Xavier Bray.
Khuslen: Hi, I’m going to ask you some Quick Fire questions!
K: The Laughing Cavalier or The Swing?
Xavier: The Swing
K: French or Dutch Art?
K: Armour or Furniture?
K: Marie-Antoinette or Madame de Pompadour?
K: Landscape or Portrait?
K: Romanticism or Classicism?
X: Mmmm difficult one. Classicism.
Hannah: How did you get into Art History?
I was really lucky because my dad was a journalist and was posted to various places in Europe, so between the age of four and eight I lived in Rome. We didn’t have a car so we cycled everywhere and my mum would put me at the back of her bike with my sisters in front. We would go around Rome and I just remember being very inspired by the incredible architecture.
I went to a French Catholic school called Trinidad de Monte and was right at the top of the Spanish Steps. I’d climb those Spanish steps every day. At the age of 16, when I was told about the Art History A Level, I just thought this is right up my alley! I loved History but I didn’t realise you could actually study Art History!
Amber: What is your background, what jobs have you had?
Well, when I left university I used to work for Sotheby’s. But what I found was that I would research every picture which would be sold but it would really hurt me, then, to see that picture be sold off and know I’d never see it again.
Because of this I knew that I wanted to go into the public field where I could look after a collection. But I soon realised that I didn’t have enough credentials academically, so I decided to do a PHD in Dublin after which I was very lucky to get a job at the National Gallery as a training assistant curator.
I worked there for two years and then I got my first proper job in Spain, Bilbao. I was also there for two years doing lots of exhibitions which I loved.
I then worked at the National Gallery again for eight years after which I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. It has a really beautiful collection and a really exciting exhibition programme! I was there for about six years, before I finally came here!
Chelsea: Who’s your favourite artist from the Wallace Collection, and why?
Well I am a Spanish painting specialists but as I’m now Director it’s best not to have favourites. At the moment, I’m trying to push aside my favourite artist – Velasquez- and trying to learn to love Boucher, Fragonard and I’m also discovering armour. Armour is an amazing medium in terms of artistic creativity! It’s always been sort of pushed aside because it is seen as ‘the art of the defence’ – a bit like the Defence Against The Dark Arts In Harry Potter, but actually the great armour makers and the people who engraved the armour were highly skilled and they deserve to be better known.
Clara: What object would you really want to have in your home?
There is this amazing eleventh- century bell in the Smoking Room from the monastery of Saint Mura in County Donegal. It’s a beautiful place and you could imagine why a monastery was built there as it’s so isolated. Presumably that bell was to wake up the monks in order to do their prayers and I’d like to take it home so I can get my children to do their music practice! It’s the most beautiful object, quite rudimentary in shape but it has amazing decorations on it, very much like the beautiful Celtic shapes on the book of Kells. Also it’s one the great objects in the Collection that people don’t realise we have.
Not at all! Actually, when I suddenly realised I would quite like to work here I’d missed the application date. Some people are very clear about where they want to be in ten year’s time but unfortunately I’m not one of those. I knew that the Wallace Collection was here and I used to come here as a student, but I never would have imagined that I would one day look after it. It was almost a sort of ‘Treasure House’ that could be only touched by the very special people so it was really exciting to be offered the possibility of working here.
Zunaira: How are you going to make the Wallace Collection more welcoming for young people?
I need ambassadors. People like Wallace Youth to go out there and tell others about this place. One of the most special things about this place is that it was given to the nation and so it belongs to everybody. People tend to forget that. I think that’s because the building from the outside is quite imposing- it does look like a private house of a very rich person. The beauty of it is that the house is actually open to all. And how to make it exciting? Well, there are lots of things we need to do. For example getting people to discover what we have here, you can come in and use your iTorch and search for what is exciting to you. We’ve got a greatly dedicated team that helps you do that!
We also have curators who select objects and research them and make them better known. But the thing I’m really hoping to do is to have exhibitions every three or four months which ‘play’ with the Collection. You select something from the Collection and you create a context around that piece of art: you tell a story about that object. People can then see the Collection in an exhibition-type context. It becomes more like a stage, like you go to the theatre to see specific actors, this time you will get specific objects that play out a certain story.
Afua: What do you think you would like to learn from my generation?
I’d love to know what gets you excited visually when coming to a Collection like this. A lot of people think that in order to look at something you need to know lots about it. I think what I’d love to know from you guys is whether you really want to have lots of information or whether you just enjoy seeing beautiful things.
I’d like to know how to get you to want to know more. You see the bell I was talking about, would you like to discover more about it? And is it done through getting a book, is it through looking on the website, is it through people like us telling you about it? Or is it something you just do your own research on and then you tell your friends?
But basically, I’d love to know how to get you excited about this Collection. it’s amazing. You don’t have to pay to get in, you just come in: come with your friends, come alone, come on a date… It’s a wonderful place to come hang out!
I remember when I was preparing for the interview for this job I would just come and sit here and watch the world go by as I did my work: it’s quite a good place to come and write. The beauty of these places being free is that you can literally come in for five minutes or an hour.
It’s a good place to interact with and so it would be great to have ideas from you guys about how to make us relevant and exciting for your generation.
But people like to categorise: people between the ages of 15 and 24, 25 and 34 … to be honest we all have at least one thing in common: we have a mind, we have feelings, we love learning, and in the end I don’t think we should be focusing on the labels. The Collection is here and if you can have the courage to ask any questions, we’re also here to answer.
Hannah: One last question- what is your vision for the Wallace Collection in the future?
I want it to be a place that people come and relax, enjoy, learn, feel and be inspired. I want it to be on people’s internal google maps system, I want them to know that it’s here and that they can come whenever all throughout the year. I don’t want people to come once every five years, I want them to use the place. I’d like it to be a real beacon of culture, particularly in this area. This area is mainly for shopping and eating, but I think people need to realise what’s in here in terms of great art. I really want it to have a strong beat of cultural vibrancy.
by Wallace Youth, edited by Clara Goundry