The Wallace Collection's 120th Anniversary


The Wallace Collection's 120th Anniversary

In this blog series our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

This week marks the 120th anniversary of the Wallace Collection first opening to the public. Today, explore some of the Collection's finest works and objects, as we celebrate the public opening of The Wallace Collection, one of the greatest bequests ever left to the British nation.

Staircase balustrade from the Banque Royale in Paris, 1719–20

On coming into the Wallace Collection’s entrance hall, the visitor’s eye is immediately drawn to the Grand Staircase, with its splendid early eighteenth-century French wrought-iron balustrade. Made for John Law’s Banque Royale in the Hôtel de Nevers in Paris, its lavish decoration includes a royal emblem, sunflowers, and symbols of abundance, cornucopiæ of coins, banknotes and fruit. Sir Richard Wallace bought the balustrade after it had been dismantled. He had it enlarged to fit the double staircase at Hertford House, where it was installed in 1874.

It is the only work of art specifically mentioned in Lady Wallace’s bequest of the Wallace Collection to the British nation. She expected that the collection would be relocated to a purpose-built museum, and wanted to ensure that the balustrade remained with it.

Busts of the Founders of the Wallace Collection: the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Lady Wallace by Charles-Auguste Lebourg, c. 1872; and Sir Richard Wallace by Emmanual Hannaux, 1899

On 16 February 1897 a Frenchwoman, Amélie Julie Charlotte Wallace, died at Hertford House in Manchester Square in central London. She had inherited a magnificent art collection from her husband, Sir Richard Wallace, and bequeathed the works of art on the ground and first floors of her London residence to the British nation as ‘The Wallace Collection’. On hearing the news, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild wrote, ‘No country has ever had such a windfall, for great as may be its pecuniary value its artistic value is inestimable.’

The collection was formed by the first four marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace, the likely illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford. It is unique in Britain for its magnificent holdings of eighteenth-century French paintings and decorative art, but also rich in seventeenth-century Old Master paintings, princely European arms and armour, and medieval and Renaissance works of art. At the official opening of the museum by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) on 22 June 1900, Lord Rosebery described the Wallace Collection as ‘the greatest gift, I believe, that has ever been made by an individual to our country’.

In the museum’s early years the bust of Lady Wallace by Charles-August Lebourg took pride of place beneath a dedicatory cartouche at the centre of the half-landing. Her bust was flanked at the quarter turns by posthumous busts of the two principal contributors to the Wallace Collection, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, also by Lebourg and Sir Richard Wallace, by Emmanuel Hannaux, commissioned for the Wallace Collection in 1899.

A Winter Scene by Isack van Ostade, mid-1640s

This atmospheric silver-grey winter scene by Isack van Ostade dates to the mid-1640s. It evokes the harshness of winter life in seventeenth-century Holland. It is full of anecdotal incident, from traders transporting their stock across the ice on sledges to children playing.

The painting is Lady Wallace’s only known contribution to the Wallace Collection. She acquired it between 1890 and 1897 by exchanging another of the artist’s works, Travellers outside an Inn (Mauritshuis, The Hague), with Alfred de Rothschild. The reason for this swap is not known. Alfred de Rothschild, who had known Sir Richard Wallace, was a trustee of the Wallace Collection from 1897 until his death in 1918.

Find out more.

The Rainbow Landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1636

On the 28th June 1856, The Rainbow Landscape was offered at the 3rd Earl of Orford sale at Christie’s.

The sale of The Rainbow Landscape had been widely anticipated by the press and collectors alike. As mentioned by our curator Lucy Davis in her upcoming book ‘Rubens: The Two Great Landscapes’, George IV was rumoured to have previously offered £6,000 to Orford himself. When the painting came up for auction, the inaugural director of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake, wished to acquire it in order to reunite it once again with A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, already in the National Gallery collection. The two paintings had been painted as a pair and had hung together in some of the most important European collections, until separated in 1803 by an English dealer. Eastlake knew the outcome of the sale could result in the two paintings being permanently united or separated.

A gripping bidding battle, widely covered by the press of the day, took place between the representative of the National Gallery and Mawson, the 4th Marquess of Hertford’s dealer. Finally, the hammer came down at the staggering price of £4,550 to Mawson. The pair was separated for good, The Rainbow Landscape eventually entering the Wallace Collection and Het Steen the National Gallery.

Find out more.

Sir Richard Wallace’s Baptism Certificate

This is Richard Wallace’s Baptism certificate. According to his testimony from the Antrim Assizes in 1871 he was born in 1818 in London and was the son of a Mrs Jackson whose maiden name was Wallace. We’re still not quite sure who this ‘Mrs Jackson’ was but it is generally assumed that he was the son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford. However he wasn’t baptised until the 21st April 1842 when he was in his 20s and after spending years living in France.

It is unknown why he decided to do this at this point and at a relatively late point in his life, possibly due to it being not long after the 3rd Marquess’s death and it wasn’t very long after he met Julie Amelie Castelnau, who would eventually become Lady Wallace. The copy we have here is dated 7th August 1843.

Sir Richard Wallace's Coat of Arms

During the Siege of Paris in 1870 Richard Wallace was able to draw on his newly inherited funds from the 4th Marquess and donated a large amount of money to a field hospital that was attached to the army corps in which his son was serving. He also became Chairman of the British Charitable Fund which distributed relief as well as giving several thousand pounds to victims of the shelling that had gone on during the siege.

In 1871-2 he donated fifty cast iron drinking fountains to the city. Designed by the sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg, many still survive today and one sits outside the museum. He received public recognition for these charitable works; he was awarded the Legion of Honour and in 1871 Queen Victoria created him a baronet, and you can see his arms in the above document. It features an ostrich holding an upside down horseshoe with the word ‘Esperance’ or hope.

Nieuwerkerke Sale, 1871

The comte Émilien de Nieuwerkerke was the Surintendant des Beaux-Arts under Napoleon III, and he acquired a large and varied art collection. Following the collapse of the Second Empire, in 1871 he fled France and sold his collection. A large part of it was bought by Sir Richard Wallace for a huge sum, this document shows that Wallace paid a deposit of 300,000 francs, and this was just half the cost to purchase this collection. Nieuwerkerke’s collection included a lot of the armour and some Italian maiolica that you can now see in the museum today.

Hertford House Transformed into a Museum

When Lady Wallace bequeathed the Wallace Collection to the British nation she did not expect it to be situated in her home, Hertford House in London’s Manchester Square, but in a purpose-built new building on a different central London site. However, a committee established shortly after her death to advise the government on the matter recommended that the collection should remain at Hertford House.

The house had been completed in 1782 for the 4th Duke of Manchester, but its freehold was owned by the Portman Estate. The Marquesses of Hertford held the lease from 1797 until the 5th Marquess agreed to Sir Richard Wallace taking it over in 1871. Between 1872 and 1875 Sir Richard made extensive additions to the building, most significantly creating a series of galleries to accommodate his growing collection.

After Lady Wallace’s death in 1897 the lease passed to her residuary legatee, Sir John Murray Scott. The government was able to acquire the freehold, and three years later, in 1900, the Wallace Collection opened at Hertford House.

An image of visitors at Bethnal Green Museum
Art Connoisseurs at the East End. Published in The Graphic, April 19, 1873 (Hertford House Historic Collection -2006.43)

Sir Richard Wallace’s Loan Exhibition at Bethnal Green (1872–5)

When Richard Wallace decided to move from Paris to London in 1871, he established Hertford House as his primary residence. While the old Georgian building was transformed into the Victorian palace we visit today, many works of art from Wallace’s collection were exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum, in the heart of London’s working-class East End.

The exhibition, which was held from 1872 until 1875, was officially opened with great pomp by the Prince of Wales, accompanied by Princess Alexandra, on Queen’s Victoria’s behalf. This was an unprecedented opportunity for less privileged citizens to have free access to previously unseen art treasures. Established as a branch of the South Kensington Museum, the Bethnal Green Museum also aimed at educating local manufacturers who would draw inspiration from the works exhibited.

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