August 29th, 2004

The Wallace Collection

The Wallace collection was assembled by members of one family (the Hertfords) over the course of four generations. The last of the line was Sir Richard Wallace (famous in Paris for gifting the city with fifty ornate public fountains.)

It’s a quirky collection. The Hertfords were Francophiles and they were buying in the wake of the French revolution. Hence the preponderance of 18th century French painting and furniture. If you like Boucher then this is the world’s number one pilgrimage site. The best single piece from this period is Fragonard’s The Swing- you know, the soft porn image of the guy reclining in a rose bush, looking up his girlfriend’s billowing skirts while she swings out over his head.

But there’s other stuff too. Dutch paintings for instance. I lingered with them. There are so many good Dutch 17th century painters that it’s easy to take them for granted. Metsu, Terboch, Steen- they way not be as great as Vermeer, but they’re very, very good. Oh, and Hals’ Laughing Cavalier is here. He’s just so real.
The Hertfords bought a number of Rembrandts. Most of them have since turned out not to be Rembrandts at all. The Portrait of Titus is the genuine article, but the rest are the work of pupils. Two of the best have been attributed to Willem Drost. Now why is a painting a great painting when it’s by Rembrandt but nothing special when it’s by Drost?

I was feeling heretical; I persuaded myself I preferred the Drosts to the genuine Rembrandts. Was Rembrandt a human being of rare depth and spirituality or was he simply a guy who perfected a painterly trick for suggesting depth and spirituality? Did he see right into his sitters’ souls or was he just flattering them with his clever handling of light and shadow?

The two greatest paintings are Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda- a magnificent, melancholy nude with a genuinely scary sea monster- and Poussin’s Dance To The Music Of Time.

We had lunch in the covered courtyard restaurant. I think it was the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for- but I didn’t feel cheated. The fountain in the centre is a copy of one of the ones Wallace gave to Paris. It pretends to be a tree with a serpent climbing up it.



Ailz lunching at The Wallace