Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Wallace Collection, London

There are lots of cultural places in London I've still yet to visit and one of those was the Wallace Collection. I say 'was' because I finally paid a visit last week. It's sited in an old mansion house in Manchester Square behind Selfridges on Oxford Street, so easy enough to get to. It's terribly grand when you get inside with thick carpets, period wallpaper and plush curtains - it looks like a lot of money has been spent keeping it up and it's free to get in. It has a nice-looking restaurant in the internal courtyard, a nice sized gift and book shop and is't too crowded since it's slightly off the beaten track - a steady stream of visitors rather than crowds which is a good thing.

The ground floor seems to be mainly what I'll call 'artefacts and armour' with loads of suits of armour on display with weapons and horses for models (and yes, there is horse armour too) and some large display cabinets full of ceramics (and not the mass produced stuff either). Upstairs is where the painting and furniture is, mainly French 18th Century works and a lot of it. It's not just what's hanging on the walls that needs to be looked at, it's the walls themselves and everything else in the rooms. There was some glorious wallpaper and matching curtains as well as period furniture of all sorts. It is an old family house after all, even though it a rather large house! It has 25 galleries (i.e. rooms).

My first double-take was when I saw this painting, 'The Swing' by Fragonard. It was a double-take because I saw a large sketch for it in an exhibition of his works in Paris when I was there last year and had no idea that the original was sitting here in London. It's deceptively (and to me surprisingly) small since I'd assume it was larger simply from the subject matter of a young gentlewoman on a swing hung from the branches of massive ancient trees. Her lover is hiding in the bushes beneath and she kicks off her slipper for him, conveniently letting him see up her dress - yes, that's Fragonard for you! The young lady is a vision of salmon-pink just off-centre with everything else in shades of green and blue. I wonder what her servants found when they went looking for the slipper?

Not far from Fragonard was another painting by someone I should have recognised if only for the depiction of the face of the sitter and the composition as a whole - Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. I went to a marvellous exhibition of her works in Paris last year, her first major retrospective in France and learned about her style and her grace and her skills in painting people, real people. She often smoothed over her sitters' flaws but made up for that by making them look like the individuals they were.  The painting was of 'Madame Perregaux' from 1789.

Where was she? Was she indoors or out? What was she looking at or who had she just caught doing something by brushing back the heavy curtain? Was she listening to someone we can't see as she brushed aside the drapery and has yet to turn her eyes to what's in front of her? We'll never know but it's fun to speculate. And that's what Mme Vigee Le Brun allows us to do in so many of her paintings - they're not only great depictions of real people but there's scope for a little bit of romance and wonder.

Wandering through more galleries, vaguely looking for more hidden gems and I walked into a large room that must have been the site of feasts and balls back in the day and there was a group of school kids there with their drawing pads and pencils. I looked round to see what most of them were clustering around and had the shock of my life to see 'The Laughing Cavalier' by Frans Hals. The Cavalier was very popular in the early 70s for some reason and I recall seeing the picture on biscuit tin lids and all over the place but had no inkling that he lived in London. How on earth did I not know that this painting was just a few miles up the road and had been sitting there waiting patiently for me to drop my jaw in surprise one wintry afternoon? Bet he had a quiet guffaw at that. Sometimes you just don't know what you might find when wandering round looking at pretty pictures. It's always worth a wander.

There's a lot more to see at The Wallace Collection and I will definitely go back to explore it again. If you're in that part of town with an hour or so to fill you could do a lot worse that wander up to Manchester Square and take a look inside the Wallace's old house. 

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