The Wallace Collection

Anne Gardom on a hidden treasure of London

The Wallace collection in Manchester Square is one of London's greatest treasures, and yet many people have never heard of it, and it attracts far fewer visitors than the other great London museums. It is housed in Hertford House, facing onto a pretty Georgian square behind Selfridges, and is simply the largest, most varied and most valuable collection of pictures and works of art ever given to the nation.

Moderately scandalous, hugely wealthy

The Marquesses of Hertford, who assembled it over four generations were eccentric, moderately scandalous, hugely wealthy, and art collectors of high discrimination and taste. The collection, now housed in their eighteenth-century London residence, was given to the nation by the widow of the fourth Marquess's illegitimate son. In 1900, when it was opened to the public for the first time, people were amazed and bemused by the richness and variety of the collection – the variety and quality of the objects and pictures on display is indeed amazing.

As you enter the main doors, you are faced with a sumptuous staircase, dividing at the first landing, with a magnificent wrought iron and gilt-bronze balustrade sweeping up to the first floor. It was designed for the Royal Bank of France, but never installed there, and its cornucopias spill out elegant cascades of gilded coins and banknotes.

At the top of the staircase hang four very large canvases by Boucher, a French artist much admired by Louis XV and Madame Pompadour (his mistress for a time, and his lifelong artistic collaborator and fellow collector). Two of them, the Rising and the Setting of the Sun, show Louis XV as Apollo and Madame Pompadour as the nymph Tethys (a nice piece of self-promotion!). The pictures are on a grand scale, full of semi-nude flying figures supported on sun-drenched clouds. When they were first exhibited in 1753, they caused something of a scandal, and were regarded as unsuitable viewing for ladies. There is indeed, an element of the pin-up in Boucher's delightfully uninhibited young women.

Majolica and pearls

Some of the rooms on the Ground Floor retain their original names, such as Billiard Room, Smoking Room, Dining Room, but are now all galleries devoted to different parts of the collection. On the Ground Floor there is still a small alcove, tiled with Turkish-style Minton tiles, which is all that is left of the original large tiled Smoking Room, now housing, among many Renaissance objects, some magnificent majolica pieces (tin-glazed earthenware, elaborately painted) made for Cosimo de Medici. There are also some exquisite carved ivories, their tiny details still in perfect condition, baroque jewellery, brilliant with enamels and fat misshapen river pearls, reliquaries, and an interesting collection of miniature wax bas-relief portraits, displayed in covered cases, to protect them from the light.

Sèvres and buhl

In other rooms on the Ground Floor are a fine collection of English portraits, including one by Sully of the very young Queen Victoria, which captures her freshness, and something of her vulnerable youthful appeal. The Hertfords were great collectors of Sèvres soft paste porcelain and there are large cases of expensive and elaborate pieces. They were designed to be assembled in impressive displays, and to the modern eye can look over-elaborate and ostentatious. However, they do complement the magnificent buhl and marquetry furniture with which the rooms and the galleries are furnished. This was very popular in France, reflecting the formality of life in aristocratic and wealthy circles, and the Hertfords acquired many fine pieces, some very large, like a roll-top desk by a Riesener (who was cabinet-maker to Louis XVI) and some fragile and elegant small pieces designed to adorn a lady's boudoir. Buhl (the decoration of furniture with gilt-bronze plaques, ornaments, handles, etc) showed off the wealth and position of the owners of these impressive pieces. They are displayed in a way that enables you to get close enough to examine and enjoy the details of their craftsmanship.

Arms and armour

One of the surprises is to find, in the galleries on the north side of the courtyard, a large collection of exquisite weapons, armour and firearms. The Oriental Armoury was a late addition to the collection and has swords, daggers and helmets inlaid with enamels, jewels and precious stones. The two rooms of European armour are beautifully displayed, with two figures of a horse and rider designed to show off equestrian armour. One fifteenth-century set of gothic armour from Germany, displayed on a huge black horse with the rider holding his sword aloft, is the embodiment of all legends and romances of ancient chivalry – improbable maybe, but heart-stirring.

The Great Gallery on the first floor was described by Lord Clarke in 1970 as "the greatest picture gallery in Europe" and still retains its late nineteenth-century feel in the red brocade walls, density of picture hanging, and distribution of objets d’art around the galleries. The collection of pictures is wide ranging and of first quality. Among them there are two full-length portraits by Anthony van Dyck, painted in his grandest style, three Rembrandts including a touching portrait of his son Titus, aged fifteen. There are paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Murillo – and, of course, there is the iconic Laughing Cavalier by Franz Hals (a real misnomer as he is neither laughing nor a cavalier) painted in his most confident bravura style.

From Flanders to Fragonard

But the Great Gallery is not all; the East Galleries house almost two hundred seventeenth-century Netherlandish paintings, wonderful landscapes, seascapes, paintings of peasants, farmers and housewives, small intimate paintings that repay careful attention. In the West Galleries are the French eighteenth-century paintings including Watteaus and Fragonards of beguiling delicacy and refinement. Here hangs what must be one of the most charming and graceful naughty pictures ever painted, The Swing, by Fragonard.

No collection is ever complete without its Canalettos, and they are here too in all their meticulous sunlit beauty. There are also four newly-restored views of Venice by Guardi, a contemporary of Canaletto, whose style was looser and more spirited. It is a rare joy to see four of his topographical views still together, and made more interesting by the display of photographs of contemporary Venice alongside.

Conservation

In the basement galleries, conservation techniques are displayed and there is a small collection of reproduction armour to try on. The gallery for small travelling exhibitions is currently showing drawings on loan from the Ashmolean.

It is difficult to give a true impression of the wealth of this collection. Lists of names and inventories of objects cannot do justice to the richness and variety of what there is to see. It is a collection stamped with the individual tastes and passions of the men who assembled it, which gives it a flavour and, in spite of its size, an intimacy which cannot be matched anywhere else in London.

The Wallace Collection is open every day. It is free, but donations are encouraged. The Cafe Bagatelle (elegant but expensive) is open during Museum hours.

Anne Gardom is the art critic of New Directions.