I saw the Wallace Collection.
It had been the very first museum I had visited on my first trip to London, 23 years ago. I was with my mother, who had ensured that I saw as much London-specific culture as possible, limiting time for the 'frivolous' pursuits of shopping and bar-hopping: "You can do that anywhere!"
One of her favourites, the Wallace Collection, remained in my memory as one of my favourites as well, however, despite numerous trips to the UK since, I did not return until this year.
The collection's home is Hertford House, a magnificent 18th century abode, at the crown of Manchester Square, just off Hinde Street (perhaps another explanation for the enduring appeal of this museum to my family) slap bang in the middle of central London. It has been much added to over the years but still retains its overall elegant Georgian country house feel, which, as you've probably worked out by now, I can be all about.
The interior and the collection, however, go beyond elegance to extreme opulence.
The collection comprises artworks, decorative objects, furniture, sculpture, ceramics, arms and armoury collected over almost 2 centuries by the four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace (illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess). It was bequeathed to the nation by Lady Wallace in 1897. One of the conditions of the bequest was that the collection must remain intact, no piece ever to be removed or added.
As a result the collection is displayed very much as it would have been at the time that the house was inhabited by its original owners.
The French furniture is the most dominant and defining feature of the collection, and is said to be one of the finest and most significant in the world, and it was this that I was most interested to see. However, although I had remembered there to be an abundance of rococo elegance, the reality of excessive baroque ornateness provided a level of sumptuousness that was too rich to fully absorb.
Especially at the end of an exhausting, albeit stimulating trip.
So I shamefully admit that I did in fact only skim the surface of this important collection. There were of course many highlights, and three particular standouts.
And I am now being somewhat lazy in my writing about them, but I know that I couldn't have done it better than the museum's catalogue descriptions.
"Perhaps the finest and most important example of the Rococco style in the decorative arts in the Wallace Collection, this commode was delivered by Gaudreaus for Louis XV’s new bedchamber in April 1739. A design for the commode attributed to the sculptor Sébastien-Antoine Slodtz, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, reveals that the mounts were originally intended to be much more symmetrical. However, as executed by the master bronzier Caffiéri, they are wildly exuberant and seem to grow organically in every direction over the surface of the commode. Louis XV, as he lay dying in his bed, is said to have thought that in the flickering firelight, the mounts looked like the flames of hell. The commode was inherited by the King’s First Gentleman of the Bedchamber, the duc d’Aumont, who probably replaced the original red and grey marble top with this one of serpentine marble."
I've always loved this shape of piece, and was first introduced to it properly during my time working with anqtiques. The word commode always intrigued me though as I had always felt it to be like a very posh, very old pre-cursor to the port-a-loo. Clearly the word has other applications.
And of course it is a privilege to see one of the finest and earliest examples of a shape that is so popular today, in pieces with a range of merit.
"Delivered by Riesener on 8 July 1780 for Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, this drop-front writing desk is one of several similar pieces, some stamped by Jean-François Oeben and some by Riesener (who took over his workshop after Oeben’s death), all produced between the early 1760s and 1780. The transitional style of the desk, with its elaborate acanthus mounts and iconographical marquetry including the cockerel of France on the drop-front contrasting with the neo-classical male mounts on either side and marquetry urns on the lower doors, indicates that it would have been largely out-of-date as soon as it was delivered in 1780. Indeed, Marie-Antoinette only kept the piece in her cabinet intérieur or private study for three years, before replacing it with another, more feminine desk now also in the Wallace Collection."
Jean-Henri Riesener was one of the most celebrated, and possibly finest, 'ebenistes' (cabinet makers) in 18th century France. And I do love the concept of a secretaire, roughly translating to secretary, so called not as one may think for the writing of letters, but for the keeping of secrets, hence the drop-front writing table, which locks to conceal the contents.
I also did pause to wonder at the procurement of this piece. Despite the English sympathy towards the French aristocracy's plight at the hands of the revolutionaries, they may have been keen to snap up some bargains post 1792.
"This grand wardrobe is one of two in the Wallace Collection. The main purpose of the piece was for display, but it was also fitted with shelves for storing linen or other items. The figurative, gilt-bronze mounts on the centre of the doors represent Apollo and Daphne and Apollo flaying Marsyas, mythological stories derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Boulle himself was a compulsive collector and owned a series of drawings after the Metamorphoses by Raphael, destroyed in his workshop fire of 1720. The wardrobe was once in the collection of the Duke of Buckingham at Stowe House. The interior was lined with peach blossom silk and fitted with gilt-bronze brackets and hooks to hold the clothes of Queen Victoria when she visited in 1845, three years before the 4th Marquess purchased the wardrobe."
Andre-Charles Boulle was another of the most celebrated cabinet makers of 18th century France, and is largely acclaimed for perfecting marquetry inlay in furniture, specifically inlay of brass and tortoiseshell.
This was therefore the perfect finale before heading back to reality, home and to work, for you know how we feel about all things gold and animal related at Becker Minty.