Country Life tours the Wallace Collection’s refurbished Great Gallery

In the 19th century, the principal draw of London for art lovers was not the national collections, then in their infancy, but the galleries attached to the town houses of the aristocracy. Visitors to the Ellesmere Collection at Bridgewater House, the Duke of Westminster’s pictures at Grosvenor House or the Earl of Dudley’s gallery at Dudley House to name only three were able to enjoy some of the greatest masterpieces of European painting for a modest charge, or none at all.

The splendid architecture and decoration of these galleries had a major influence on the way that publicly owned collections were displayed. Yet almost all have gone, their pictures sold or moved to the country, and the houses themselves have often been destroyed. The only two major intact examples of these princely displays in London have survived because they form part of buildings conver-ted into museums: the Duke of Wellington’s pictures at Apsley House and the Wallace Collection at Hertford House.

After being closed for 18 months for restoration, the Great Gallery at the Wallace reopens later this month. Overseen by the curator of Old Master pictures, Lucy Davis, working with the director, Christoph Vogtherr, this major project has transformed one of London’s greatest rooms, at the same time as maintaining intact the character of the display, which includes some of the most famous paintings in Britain, from Hals’s The Laughing Cavalier to Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

Almost all the gallery’s paintings were acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–70), but he didn’t create the gallery. In his lifetime, Hertford House had no large room dedicated to works of art and most of his vast accumulations of porcelain, furniture and pictures was crammed into two relatively small houses in Paris, where he idled away his life.

When he died, he bequeathed his collections to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace (1818–90), who, shortly afterwards, began to transfer most of them to London, perhaps a reaction to the traumatic events of the Siege of Paris and Commune in 1870.

Despite his uncertain social status, a consequence of his illegitimacy, and the fact that his French wife took no part in English Society, Wallace became a public figure, who—unlike his reclusive and misanthropic father had a great sense of social responsibility. This was evident not only in his many charitable gifts and career as a Con-servative MP, but also in his loan of most of the collection to the new Bethnal Green Museum in 1872–5, where it attracted five million visitors.

During that time, Wallace carried out major alterations at Hertford House. The most significant was the addition of the toplit Great Gallery along the entire rear flank of the building, where it formed the culmination of the circuit of first-floor reception rooms.

During Wallace’s lifetime, the gallery was opened to visitors by application on one day a week and, after the death of his only child, Edmond, in 1887, he decided that it would eventually have a larger public role.Although he left the collection absolutely to his wife, she knew that he had hoped that it would become a public possession and, on her death, in 1897, she bequeathed Hertford House and its contents to the nation.

Photographs of the Great Gallery show that the character of the display in Wallace’s life-time, densely hung with paintings to almost the full height of the walls, was radically changed not long after the house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection in 1900. By 1921, the paintings had been rehung in modern museum fashion in a single or occasional double line and most of the furniture had been cleared away.

That was how it remained until the late 1970s, although the hang was altered in detail over the years. The return of the gallery to something like its Victorian appearance was initiated by the Wallace’s former director John Ingamells (who wrote the catalogue of the picture collection) as part of a major refurbishment of the gallery in 1978–82.

This was an early example of the return to historic methods of display in British public collections, pioneered most famously by Timothy Clifford at Manchester City Art Gallery. Although Mr Ingamells’s changes greatly improved the look of the gallery, the installation of the museum’s first air-conditioning system meant that its ceiling had to be lowered and the system of indirect natural light that it had enjoyed since Wallace’s time was replaced by solely artificial lighting, which gave the room a slightly airless feel.

The present restoration which forms a climax, but not the conclusion, of a compre-
hensive programme of refurbishment of the galleries begun under the Wallace’s former director Dame Rosalind Savill in 2000 has been paid for by a single donation of £5 million by the Monument Trust, in memory of the Hon Simon Sainsbury, a major donor to the Wallace and a former trustee.

As with the other galleries, the design work has been carried out by John O’Connell Architects. At first glance, it may seem that almost nothing has changed, but, in fact, almost everything has. Even the gallery’s two doors, at the far ends of the south wall, are not in their original places. They were formerly close to the corners of the room, creating a dead space in the angle; now that they have been moved closer together, there is room to hang large pictures on either side of them.

In the 1978–82 restoration, the walls were hung with a coral-coloured fabric, which, by 2012, had faded. It has been replaced by a small-patterned crimson damask woven by Prelle in Lyon. Inspired by the wall hangings used in most of the great Victorian private picture galleries of London continuing a tradition that goes back to the 17th century it provides a satisfyingly rich and deep-toned backdrop to the paintings.

The main seat furniture in the room, an early Louis XVI set of chairs and settees, has been reupholstered to match. One subtle but striking improvement is the addition of a chair rail and dado, which the room had never possessed before. This anchors the furniture to the setting, but, more significantly, provides a strong architectural base for the hang of the paintings, preventing any feeling that they are floating on these huge walls.

Most impressive of all is the coved ceiling. An entirely new design by John O’Connell, it reintroduces indirect sunlight by means of oval lay lights in the cove and a large lay light in the centre of the room. This has been made possible by advances in air-conditioning technology: the new system installed as part of the refurbishment is very much smaller than its 1978–81 predecessor. Daylight brings the room alive, and lends sparkle to the paintings, enhanced by an entirely new lighting scheme predominantly LEDs by the engineers, Sutton Vane Associates.

In her rehang of the paintings, Dr Davis has been guided by the historical evolution of the room, while recognising that it is impossible to reconstruct Wallace’s display precisely. Many of the pictures shown in photographs of the room in his lifetime have been dispersed into the museum’s other paintings galleries. However, about half the 64 paintings now on show here were in the gallery in his day.

More importantly, the purpose of the display hasn’t changed: although many visitors to the Wallace probably think of the gallery as a display of the collection’s most famous treasures, it is, in fact, almost exclusively 17th-century in character: the room is devoted to the grand tradition in Old Master painting that collectors such as Lord Hertford regarded as the unrivalled peak of European art.

As well as being beautiful in its own right, the new hang is consistently stimulating to the brain as well as the eye in the way it draws attention to contrasts as well as links between the schools of European art. For example, a group of religious paintings on the west wall strikingly juxtaposes the soft brushwork of Murillo one of Lord Hert-ford’s favourite artists with the sculptural solidity of Philippe de Champaigne’s monumental The Annunciation.

Some groups dictated themselves the collection’s three portraits of Prince Baltasar Carlos associated with Velázquez’s studio, which include a full-length once owned by Joshua Reynolds (and restored by him), are hung together as part of a group of Spanish paintings at the west end of the north wall.

Two contrasting groups, one from Flanders and one from Holland, face each across the centre of the room to powerful and moving effect. On the north wall, Rubens’s radiant Rainbow Landscape is flanked by Van Dyck’s full-lengths of Marie de Raet and Philippe Le Roy; opposite are Rembrandt’s portraits of Jean Pellicorne and his wife and children, on either side of Van de Velde’s serene masterpiece Calm: Dutch Ships Coming to Anchor.

The display on the east wall evokes the world of Regency and early-Victorian connoisseurship that shaped the tastes of the 4th Marquess. Its centrepiece is Sir Thomas Lawrence’s vast full-length of George IV in relaxed pose on a sofa. The painting (which was formerly hung at the opposite end of the gallery) was bought by Sir Richard in 1883 it was one of his last major acquisitions partly as a tribute to his grandfather, the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, who advised the King about the purchases of works of art.

Next to it is Van Dyck’s Paris, a painting acquired by the 3rd Marquess and which
he intended to bequeath to George IV, but he outlived the King. Although the Wallace’s picture collection is famous above all for French art, one element lacking in the Great Gallery’s display was any representative example of French history painting of the late Baroque and Rococo periods. At the suggestion of Dr Vogtherr, who is also the Wallace’s curator of French paintings, two canvases by François Lemoyne, Perseus and Andromeda and Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy have been moved here from the billiard room.

The latter has a rather macabre reputation as the painting that was on Lemoyne’s easel when he stabbed himself to death in a fit of depression in his studio in Paris in 1737. As Premier peintre du Roi, he was responsible for major additions to the painted decor-ation at Versailles. His deep understanding of the European Old Master tradition is made apparent to striking effect in the Great Gallery by the juxtaposition of his Perseus canvas with Titian’s celebrated depiction
of the same subject.

Lemoyne’s most famous pupil was the Rococo painter François Boucher, of whose elegantly sensual paintings the Wallace has an unparalleled collection. The rehang thus links Boucher back, via Lemoyne, to the artists of the previous century, such as Rubens, to whom almost all 18th-century painters owed a great debt. As Dr Vogtherr said to Country Life: ‘in most of the Wallace Collection, the national schools Dutch, French, British and so on are all separated out. The Great Gallery is not just the climax of the museum it is the room that ties our collection together.’

The Great Gallery at the Wallace Collection reopens on September 19 (020–7563 9500; www.wallacecollection.org)

* This article was first published in Country Life magazine on September 10 2014