If Sir Richard Wallace’s ghost passes through Hertford House’s Great Gallery on its nightly rounds, it must be feeling pleased. Faded fabric walls have been replaced with a crimson silk damask, the ceiling – which was lowered in the 1970s to make space for air conditioning ducts – has been raised to allow in natural light again, gilded wainscot panelling now runs along the length of the walls and the old wood floor has been replaced with spanking new parquet. Ghosts do not probably understand the need for air-conditioning, and although the 1970s Great Gallery revamp was seen as state-of-the-art at the time, Sir Richard may have wondered why his cleverly designed ceiling, which allowed daylight into the room, but only indirectly so as to protect the artworks, was ever removed.
Over the past few years the Wallace Collection has played host to its fair share of workmen, and the Great Gallery refurbishment is but one of several major overhauls to take place in the gallery. In May 2009, Lady Wallace’s Boudoir, the West Room and the Landing reopened; the Study, the Oval Drawing Room and the Small Drawing Room have been subject to an ongoing program of redecoration; in August 2010 the West Galleries I and II and the Nineteenth Century Gallery opened for business; and in March 2012, it was the East Galleries’ turn to show off their new look. And although the unveiling of the Great Gallery in September 2014 may have marked the pinnacle of the Wallace Collection’s grand design, the workmen have not yet quit Manchester Square for good, with plans afoot to finish the refurbishment of the first floor galleries, as well as to reconfigure the museum’s lower ground floor to make space for a lunch area and film room.
Richard Wallace was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, and although when his father died in 1870 he did not get the title, he did get the house, even if he had to buy it from his cousin, the 5th Marquess. The art and furniture at Hertford House is known today as the Wallace Collection, but it might just as well be called the Hertford Collection, for in large part it was acquired by the 3rd and 4th Marquesses during the mid-19th century. It was, however, Richard Wallace who consolidated the collection, bringing many of the 4th Marquess’s pieces from Paris to London, where they have been ever since. Hertford House itself was redesigned by Wallace in order to accommodate the collection, including the addition of the Great Gallery, a room created to house the family’s most important masterpieces and which Wallace devised as the impressive finale for visitors to the house.
Not that Hertford House’s other galleries and rooms are devoid of notable works, with Reynolds, Watteau, Gainsborough, Canaletto, Rembrandt, Rubens and the like strewn across their walls. Redecorating these areas has involved painstaking craftsmanship, with many of the rooms hung in silk, a skill which your average painter-decorator is unlikely to possess. Instead specialist fabric hangers from France were brought in to fix the material to the walls, each room taking three men at least a week to hang. The new dark blue silk which replaces the dingy 30 year old fabric of the East Galleries’ walls, was conceived as a contrast to the green backdrop usually chosen for Dutch works of art. Dark blue had been used by collectors in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but in recent decades is rarely seen behind a Frans Hals or a Rembrandt. With each of these paintings still in its 19th century gilt frame – in the early 20th century it was the fashion to put Dutch pictures in black frames – the effect of gold against blue is sumptuous. The Great Gallery’s new Pompeian red silk, like the dark blue of the East Galleries, was woven by specialist manufacturers Prelle of Lyon, and incorporates a brocatelle pattern taken from the weavers’ nineteenth century archives. Below these dark blue and crimson silks, running along the bottom of the galleries’ walls, are the new wainscot panels, with their 23.25 carat gilded recesses, lightening the overall effect of the rooms – which had been floor to ceiling fabric – easing the eye upwards towards the art, and creating a brighter backdrop for the furniture.
The East Galleries, which provide visitors with a micro-history of 17th century Dutch painting, suffered a similar fate to the Great Gallery during the 1970s, when their ceiling height was lowered to make space for air-conditioning ducts. The eighteen month refurbishment program which began in October 2010, however, raised the ceiling by two metres, taking it back to its original level and, as in the Great Gallery, once again allowed daylight into the rooms. Broadly arranged by school, Rembrandt and his circle hang in the first gallery, Dutch genre paintings in the second and Italian inspired Dutch landscapes in the third. This latter genre became a preoccupation for Dutch painters at the end of the 17th century, and provides a fitting overture to the Great Gallery. But the visitor is now physically discouraged from rushing on to Sir Richard Wallace’s show-stopping final room, with the decision to move the third gallery’s far door off-centre. The view into the Great Gallery is, as a result, obscured while walking through the East Galleries, reducing the compulsion to move too swiftly through the Dutch collection.
Once in the Great Gallery, however, there is no going back. For here, as Sir Richard had envisioned, is Hertford House’s grand finale. Vast, airy and lavishly decorated, it is difficult to know where to look first. This is a 17th century European hit parade, with Poussin, Velzquez, Frans Hals, Murillo, van Dyck, Claude, and Rubens rubbing shoulders against each other. There are a few exceptions: Titian, who influenced so many of these 17th century painters, has been allowed in with his Perseus and Andromeda, as has 19th century British artist Thomas Lawrence’s monumental portrait of George IV; but these pictures have been members of the Great Gallery club since Wallace’s day. The re-shuffle, however, has introduced some new works from elsewhere in the collection, including Francois Lemoyne’s Perseus and Andromeda (1723), which now hangs alongside Titian’s version. The hang, which curators hope captures “the cultural dialogue that was occurring between the major centres of 17th century artistic creativity,” has been accused by some, as being designed by art historians for art historians. But this seems unfair. For whatever the underlying art historical nuances between one painting and its neighbour, these pictures are displayed in a way that makes aesthetic sense. Works by individual artists are not, as is usual for galleries, gathered in clusters; instead they are mixed and matched across the room, in homage to their origin as part of a private collection.
The Wallace Collection’s refurbishment has been a logistical triumph for the museum’s organisers. At no point did the collection close entirely, despite the juggling of some 200 artworks during the Great Gallery’s two year overhaul. There was something of a fanfare when the gallery reopened earlier this year, but things have calmed down since then, and with overcrowding rare, the collection remains one of London’s best kept secrets.
The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN
Open daily from 10am – 5pm, including all Public Holidays 10 – 5pm, except 24 – 26 December. Admission free.