Director's Reflections on the Wallace Collection Celebrating 120 Years

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Director's Reflections on the Wallace Collection Celebrating 120 Years

As we make the necessary preparations to re-open the Wallace Collection on 15th July, it is poignant to cast one’s mind back exactly one hundred and twenty years, to June 1900, when the final touches were being made to a new museum that would become The Wallace Collection.

Director of the Wallace Collection, Dr Xavier Bray
Photo of Great Gallery at The Wallace Collection in 1904
The Great Gallery in 1904.

The opening of the Wallace Collection was much anticipated by the general public following Lady Wallace’s bequest of the Collection to the Nation in 1897. Never before had such an important and valuable collection been made available for public consumption. The government at the time took the gift extremely seriously and appointed a special committee to decide on how best to interpret Lady Wallace’s will. After much discussion as to where the Wallace Collection should reside – Lady Wallace had stipulated that a ‘special museum’ should be built ‘in central London’- it was decided to refurbish Hertford House and turn it into a museum to house the bequest. The stables and coach house transformed into armouries; the private apartments adapted into galleries; cases and barriers were installed and turnstyles were even introduced, at the entrance.

Black and white photo of The Wallace Collection Entrance Hall in 1904
The Wallace Collection Entrance Hall in 1904.

The grand opening to the public on 25th June was preceded by a VIP event. On the afternoon of 22nd June, the Prince of Wales and the Royal family, accompanied by other dignitaries and members of parliament, officially opened the Wallace Collection, and were then treated to tea in the armouries. The speeches are all transcribed in the Evening Standard, with the main emphasis on Lady Wallace’s enlightened generosity towards the British people. The first Chairman of the Trustees, Lord Roseberry, pronounced that ‘we owe it to the bounty of Lady Wallace, who although not an Englishwoman by birth, has enriched this nation with the greatest gift, I believe, that has ever been made by an individual to our country (applause).’ The Prince of Wales in turn added that ‘we are, indeed, greatly indebted to Lady Wallace for having left to the nation what is, perhaps, one of the finest collections in the world – a collection of which every civilized nation must envy us (hear, hear).’

Black and white photo of European Armoury at The Wallace collection1890
The European Armoury in 1890, 10 years before opening to the public.

The opening of the Wallace Collection was described as being like the arrival of ‘El Dorado’ for art lovers. The wealth, breadth and sheer quality was unequalled - and there it was: accessible to all, to be admired, understood and studied. By October 1900, 225,000 visitors had come to admire the arms and armours, the Old Master paintings and especially the sumptuous collection of French eighteenth-century decorative arts and paintings. The lack of French art in our national museums was well-known and a much-criticized lacuna at the National Gallery, where there were only 17 French paintings. Suddenly the British public could admire some 130 paintings by Boucher, Fragonard, Watteau, Lancret and many others. Indeed, the French newspaper, Le Figaro, noted proudly that the Wallace was now effectively the French embassy and was ‘une victoire, une conqûete française en plein Londres… (‘a victory, a French conquest in the heart of London.’)

Half naked figures float surrounded by clouds and water
The Rising of the Sun by François Boucher, 1753.

There is one painting that was much praised by the press at the time but which, to my horror, I did not even know we had: Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s Macbeth, paysage (Macbeth, Landscape). A relatively large painting, it hangs high in the West Galleries, with the light reflecting off a very unsettling old varnish- or at least that’s my excuse as to why I could not see it up there. I ran immediately to the galleries to inspect this painting by one of the most revered landscape painters of nineteenth-century France, also known as the father of the Impressionists. Indeed, when this painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1859, it was apparently much admired by the young Monet who was then attending the Academie Suisse where he had befriended Camille Pissarro.

Landscape of two men on horses meeting 3 witches
Macbeth, paysage (Macbeth, Landscape) by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1858 - 1859.

The painting is executed with a loose, expressive hand, as Corot captures the light effects of the sun breaking through the trees. While Corot owes much to the seventeenth-century French painter Claude in the way he ‘constructs’ his imaginary landscape, the hazy atmosphere and treatment of light effects was to be of great inspiration for later painters. Depicting a scene from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth (Act 1 Scene 3), the image was unsurprisingly popular, especially with British visitors to the Wallace.

The three witches stand ominously on the left, set against the twilight, with one of them pointing threateningly at Macbeth and Banquo as they ride through and out of the forest. It is always worth reading the passage of text to which the work alludes while looking at painting like this and, although Shakespeare refers to a heath, Corot must have taken the following lines spoken by Macbeth, as his guide: ‘why / Upon this blasted heath you stop our way / With such prophetic greeting? – Speak, I charge you’ (Macbeth, I.iii.76 -78)

On the eve of our reopening, it has been heartwarming to read of the joys and appreciation that the first opening of the Wallace Collection gave the British public. I sincerely hope that the reopening of the doors on 15 July 2020 will bring similar joy and enrichment to those who step through them. Collections like the Wallace make London one of the world’s great cultural cities. The treasures within it help us to understand who we are and where we came from and are an enduring and uplifting reminder of humanity’s abundant creativity.

A note to self: I must get that Corot Macbeth cleaned!

Front of Hertford House from Manchester square
The Wallace Collection today.

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