Getting to know Sir Richard Wallace, the genius behind The Wallace Collection

I’ve visited The Wallace Collection a number of times: to attend talks, meet friends for lunch and wander its treasure-laden rooms; I’ve even organised an event there (highly successful, thank you very much). Until today, though, I knew little about Sir Richard Wallace, former owner of this beautiful building and the genius behind the Collection contained within.

I suspect I am not alone in that regard and that feeling was backed up by the number of people entering and exiting the Collection’s latest exhibition: ‘Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector’. No doubt they were as curious as me to learn more about the man who left such an incredible legacy in this pocket of Marylebone.

This isn’t a large exhibition but it is impactful and I liked the way in which it blended information about the lives of Sir and Lady Wallace with personal items and treasured artefacts from their eclectic collection. 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Sir Richard’s birth and this exhibition is a fitting tribute to him and his “unprecedented contribution to the country’s cultural heritage”.

Who, actually, was Sir Richard Wallace and why should you seek out this exhibition? Sir Richard was born in London in 1818 – son of Agnes Jackson. In 1825, Agnes went to Paris to visit Richard Seymour-Conway, 4thMarquess of Hertford, taking her son with her. It is generally believed that the Marquess was the boy’s father – but this has never been confirmed. In any case, the aristocrat took charge of Richard’s upbringing.

Casket - Wallace
This stunning casket, made by Louis Leroy, was part of a toilet service destined for the Turkish market.

“Richard Jackson” spent most of his youth in Paris and was eventually employed as Lord Hertford’s private secretary. Having taken his mother’s family name in 1842, during the 1850s Wallace built up his own art collection – but sold it in 1857 because of financial difficulties. However, in 1870, Richard Wallace’s life was transformed when he unexpectedly inherited the Marquess’s fortune and dazzling art collection.

Now able to buy art on an extensive scale, Wallace became one of the most important collectors of his age. With France at war with Prussia and the Siege of Paris about to begin, somehow Wallace managed to ensure that his collection was packed and moved to safety. The Siege led to the defeat of the French and was followed by the Commune, the terrible civil war which ended in May 1871. During this dramatic period, Wallace stayed in Paris and became known for his philanthropy.

Henceforth, Wallace’s life was split between England and France and he received celebrity status in both countries as a result of his public activities. A distinguished philanthropist, and a major leader to exhibitions, he believed that art should be accessible to all, not just the privileged few.

Hercules - Wallace
This wooden statuette of Hercules was made by Francesco, goldsmith of Padua. His most famous work, it is mentioned in Bernardino Scardeone’s 1560 history of Padua.

In 1871, Wallace married his long-term mistress, Julie Castelnau. He also moved to England, which he viewed as more stable – although his ties to France remained strong. Wallace chose Manchester House as his main London residence, renaming it Hertford House and creating new galleries to display his art collection.

Soon after settling in London, Wallace made two major philanthropic gestures: the gift of an important painting in the National Gallery and the loan of 2,000 works of art to the new branch of South Kensington Museum, in Bethnal Green, while he was refurbishing Hertford House. This successful exhibition, visited by 2.3 million people, provided the local population with free access to exceptional art.

Wallace’s health declined from 1800 and deteriorated further after the death of his son Edmond in 1887. Already anxious about his financial situation, his income was reduced by the agricultural depression that had begun in the late 1870s. In the last decades of Wallace’s life, his expenditure on collecting declined, although he continued his philanthropic activities and often lent to exhibitions.

Parade Armour - Wallace
This partial unfinished armour was made for Alfonso Il d’Este by Lucio Marliani in 1575, but as a courtly costume rather than for fighting.

Wallace died in July 1890 at Bagatelle and was buried in the Hertford family mausoleum in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. When Lady Wallace died in 1897 she bequeathed their magnificent art collection to the nation. The Wallace Collection was opened as a National Museum by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1900.

It remains one of my favourite places in London, an oasis of calm just moments from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street. Spending time there both educates and soothes me – an impact that would surely gladden Sir Richard’s heart.

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