In close proximity to a bustling, hectic, Oxford Street, there exists (just behind Selfridges) a tranquil square with a truly unique museum – The Wallace Collection. It's located in Hertford House, a grand town house which was built in the late 18th century and opened as a museum to the public in 1900 when the widow of Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890) bequeathed the house in its entirety to the British nation. Ever since then it has existed as a free national museum which is home to an impressive collection of artwork, an exquisite selection of furniture and porcelain and even a world class armoury. Unusually, even its temporary exhibitions are free.
It makes sense to start a tour of the Wallace Collection on the ground floor with the State Rooms – the grandest rooms of the house where the most important visitors were formally received. On display in the State Rooms is a magnificent porcelain collection, containing a wealth of vibrantly colourful and enamelled pieces from the world renowned Sèvres factory in France. Historically, it was common for each well connected family to have a large collection of Sèvres porcelain; the Wallace family are a good example, having been descendents of a line of marquises and extremely well-connected in both Britain and France.
There are many exquisite items of furniture on display in the house, including armoires made by André-Charles Boulle, a pre-eminent artist in the field of marquetry during the late 17th and early 18th century. The regal, plush, carpeted staircase forms the central feature of the house and is supported by an elaborate, antique, balustrade which was initially installed on the front staircase of the Banque Royale, Paris before being moved to Hertford House in 1874.
The Wallace Collection is home to a wealth of wonderful paintings. In line with the French ancestry of the family, there is the largest single collection in the world of the work of François Boucher, the King's painter for Louis XV. There is also a room dedicated to Venetian art, featuring 1740s Canalettos and work by Francesco Guardi. The Great Gallery at the back of the house contains art by esteemed European artists such as, Antony Van Dyck, Poussin and Rembrandt. Interestingly, the art collection on display at Hertford House never changes due to a special clause in Lady Wallace's will which states that no painting can ever leave the collection, even for loan exhibitions. Similarly, no paintings from other galleries can ever be displayed there.
A space that was formerly Sir Richard Wallace's stables contains some of the most spectacular Renaissance arms and armour in Britain, which are definitely worth a visit. A Guided Tour of the house is also highly recommended (these happen on a daily basis). The Wallace Collection is an undiscovered national treasure; a gift to the British public that should be enjoyed.
Wallace CollectionHertford House, Manchester Square
London Greater London United Kingdom W1U 3BN
Open public holidays except 24-26 December.