Tucked away behind Selfridges, taking up one side of Manchester Square, is the Wallace Collection, home to one of the finest collections of art anywhere. What’s more, you can walk in to view the collection for free. Given its location, a five minute walk from the busy shopping thoroughfares of Oxford Street and Marylebone High Street, you would expect it to be packed but inexplicably it never is.
Everything in the house was bought because its series of owners liked it rather than because a committee thought that it was important to have it in the collection. The personalities of the five men who amassed the collection shines through. On the ground floor the first galleries you come to contain works from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Saints and Madonnas look down on you. The centre of the room is taken up with old school museum display cases containing exquisite examples of illuminated lettering from medieval documents. Hiding in one corner is a tiny painting of Saint Roch by Carlo Crivelli. Saint Roch was born into a wealthy family but gave it all up and set off on a pilgrimage to Rome. Plague was sweeping Europe at the time and he comforted victims along the way before noticing a sore on his thigh and succumbing to the disease himself. We see him with one stocking dropped to show his sore and a halo above his magnificently flicky hair.
Richard Wallace, the final collector, had a suite of galleries built onto the back of the house in the 1870’s, the biggest and most magnificent of these is known as the Great Gallery, dubbed “the greatest picture gallery in Europe” by the art historian Kenneth Clark. Rubens, Velázquez, Titian and Van Dyck all jostle for space. Most famous of all of them is Frans Hals’ “Laughing Cavalier”. Where ever you stand his twinkling eyes meet yours, he is clothed in extravagant and beautifully depicted lace. The author Anthony Powell was strolling round the gallery one day and chanced across the Poussin painting “A Dance to the Music of Time” and was so taken with it that he took the title for series of novels that he was writing.
My favourite is by the Dutch painter Bartholomeus van der Helst it shows a prosperous baker, his wife and their daughter. The wife looks at us directly and she is clothed in a stunning silk dress that been painted so well you can almost hear it rustle. Somewhat oddly she is holding aloft a dead hare. This poor beast seems to be falling towards us but symbolises her husband’s hunting prowess and from this we see that, even though they are not aristocratic people, they are wealthy and have just been granted the right to hunt. Elsewhere you will find a room full of Canaletto’s, Marie-Antoinette’s desk and the ground floor has galleries devoted to a huge collection of armour. Personally I don’t care for the armour but the Junior CW’s have been very impressed by the sets of horse armour.
The Wallace Collection is packed to the gunnels with not only works by stunningly famous artists but also incredible range of object d’art. Secreted in one of the cabinets is a series of tobacco graters, tobacco used to be shipped in compressed cakes which then needed grating before you could smoke it – who knew that such a thing was even needed, let alone exist? If you fancy a break from shopping the next time you are in the West End, it is well worth the diversion from the madness of Oxford Street. A restaurant nestles in the centre of the gallery and makes a fine place to stop for a cup of coffee.
Manchester Square, London W1U 3BU
Open daily 10am-5pm (closed December 24-26) – Admission free