The Wallace Collection

Balustrade, French, 1719-20
Treasure of the Month - June 2010

Balustrade, French, 1719-20

The balustrade of the grand staircase was installed in Hertford House in 1874 and is specifically mentioned in Lady Wallace’s will as being part of her bequest to the British nation. If the ‘new museum’ (The Wallace Collection) were to be housed elsewhere, the balustrade had to be de-installed from Hertford House and taken to the new museum.  As the collection stayed in situ, so did the balustrade.

The balustrade was not made for Hertford House however and underwent extensive modification when it was installed here.  It was originally installed in the Royal Bank of France, which was in the Hôtel de Nevers, rue de Richelieu, Paris (now part of the French national library).  It can be said that this balustrade bore witness to the invention of modern economics.

In 1715, Louis XIV died, and his heir, Louis XV was aged only five, so a regency was necessary. Phillipe II d’Orleans, nephew of Louis XIV, was regent until his death in 1723. When he came to power, the state was in debt by 77 million livres and there remained in the treasury only 800,000 livres: the taxes for the next two years had been spent in advance.  A solution was needed before the state became bankrupt. John Law (1671-1729), a Scottish economist, was the Controller General of Finances of France and had many very modern ideas including that the more money there was in circulation, the more the economy would flourish. He introduced paper money, which reduced the need for the scarce materials of gold and silver and emphasised shares and speculation.  The economy, for all too brief a time, boomed spectacularly. Some of the poorest members of society became millionaires overnight. Feverish crowds gathered in the rue Quincampoix to buy and sell shares.

In this context the decoration of the balustrade is obvious. Designed for the first national bank France had ever had, at a time when this bank was experiencing huge success, the cornucopiae spill over not only with the traditional fruit, but with coins and banknotes.  At the landing, the magnificent cartouche contains the royal cipher of interlaced Ls, paying tribute to the King John Law hoped to serve. 

The bank, however, collapsed as spectacularly as it had soared, precipitated by a government decree halving the face value of all bank notes.  In December 1720, Law had to flee France. After the Regent’s death in 1723, he must have known all royal protection was lost, and he died in Venice in 1729.

Further Reading

  • Peter Hughes, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Furniture, volume III, pp. 1179-1192.

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2010.

Text by Mia Jackson.