When Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of a Marquess unexpectedly inherited his father's art collection, he did himself and his family proud by greatly improving and expanding it – and today, it's a national treasure trove. Lilias Wigan paid a visit and picked out two particular oriental treasures.

The Wallace Collection at Hertford House (formerly Manchester House) in Marylebone is widely admired for the astonishing collection of art and artefacts of the 3rd and 4th Marquesses of Hertford. Room after room is adorned with exceptional eighteenth-century French art and Old Master paintings by the likes of Fragonard, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian.

Less familiar is the extent to which the museum’s founder, Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890) –the illegitimate son of the fourth Marquess of Hertford – shaped and expanded the collection, which he unexpectedly inherited in 1870.

Celebrating 200 years since Wallace’s birth and the opening of an impressive new £1.2 million exhibition space, Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector explores his invaluable contributions to the collection, which was bequeathed to the nation by his widow Lady Wallace upon her death in 1897.

Wallace’s tastes differed from those of his predecessors. He was particularly taken by medieval and Renaissance art and the sheer diversity of his interests is apparent: items range from a 200-300 year old gold Ghanaian Asante head (pictured below) and a miniature gothic Dutch triptych altarpiece, to sixteenth-century Italian maiolica pieces and an exquisite dagger that once belonged to Henri IV of France.

©Cassandra Parons / The Wallace Collection

©Cassandra Parons / The Wallace Collection

Wallace was interested in works of art with a narrative, and particularly in those that had associations with prominent historic figures; he purchased the prestigious Comte de Nieuwerkerke’s entire 800-piece collection of historic art objects, as well as armoury from Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, much of whose collection is now in the British Museum. He also relished opulence and the exotic and procured many objects laden with precious metals, jewels and gemstones.

Wallace strongly believed in making art accessible to the masses. Ferdinand de Rothschild recognised the enormity of his contribution to Britain’s cultural heritage in his memoir of 1987: ‘there is not one [artwork] that is not of the highest excellence,’ he wrote. Had the collection not been bestowed so generously to the nation, it would have ‘caused a disastrous loss to the general public’.

Among the most arresting exhibits in this exhibition are these two Chinese wine cups (c. 1739-40), which were made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735–1796) and acquired by Wallace for 25,200 francs at the Allègre sale in Paris of 1872.

The Imperial Wine Cups ©The Wallace Collection

The Imperial Wine Cups ©The Wallace Collection

The catalogue labels them as having come from the Beijing Summer Palace – the mid-18th century residence of Chinese emperors that was destroyed during the Second Opium War. The Gold Cup of Eternal Stability was used by the emperor for drinking herbal tusu wine – a gesture intended to assure the country’s stability – at a ceremony for the Chinese New Year in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

The goblets are made from gold, kingfisher feathers, pearls and gemstones; the stands (probably 19th-century) are wooden with stained ivory and mother of pearl inlay. Heads of elephants – symbolic of wisdom and strength – take the place of stems, with long trunks and elegant tusks gently curving at the base.

One cup contains more gold in its alloy – hence the richer, brighter tone of the metal. But both gleam with sumptuous brilliance.

©The Wallace Collection

The iridescent blue ground is made using the feathers of small kingfisher birds in the traditional Chinese technique of Tian-tsui, meaning ‘dotting with kingfisher’. This plumage was deeply coveted for use in hair ornaments and jewellery as symbols of feminine beauty. The feathers were painstakingly cut and glued onto each ornament to achieve an effect similar to enamel cloisonné.

The difficulty of catching kingfishers raised the profile of Tian-tsui, so that it became an emblem of wealth and prestige. The use of kingfishers in art came to an end during the Chinese Revolution of the 1940s.

Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is on view at The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN, until 6 January 2019; Free Admission – see www.wallacecollection.org for more details.