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The Wallace Collection: An Interview with the 9th Marquess of Hertford

Illustration by Nia Thomas

The beloved Wallace Collection boasts a rich and exhilarating heritage, one that is intrinsically linked to the Hertford family. Surveying the grand galleries and the intimate setting of the first floor Oval Drawing Room, I was honoured to get the opportunity to sit down in the Wallace Collection’s courtyard and probe the exceptional mind of Lord Hertford, an honorary Trustee of the museum.

The extensive collection, including paintings by Titian, Rubens, Rembrant, Poussin, furniture by André-Charles Boulle, and one of the best collections of Indian, Persian and Turkish, armoire ranging from the 15th to the 19th century, was left by Amélie-Julie-Charlotte Castelnau (1819-1897), commonly known as Lady Wallace, to the nation on her death. Henceforth the Wallace Collection was governed by a Board of Trustees, which are appointed by the Prime Minister. The Trustees represent an independent body who bring a variety of expertise and experience to the governance of the Collection.

The creation of the Collection was inspired by Richard Seymour-Conway, the 4th Marquess, and his illegitimate son Richard Wallace who resided in Paris as an avid art collector. The Seymour-Conway left his substantial collection to Richard Wallace upon his death in 1870, and it was Lady Wallace's loyal devotion to her husband Richard which led her to bequeath the collection to the nation. However, she left the family apartment in the Rue Laffitte and Bagatelle in Paris, the estate in Ireland and the lease of Hertford House, to her secretary John Murray Scott (1847-1912). There has been contention over the legitimacy of Lady Wallace’s will; although authenticated, many believe that John Murray Scott manipulated it for personal gains.

Gossip aside, I got the opportunity to ask Lord Hertford about the Wallace Collection’s relationship with its own heritage, the Collection’s future and its ability to adapt to changing technological advances in curation, and, of course, the appointment of Xavier Bray.

Hertford and I both agreed that the intricate history of the Wallace Collection “should be more readily available” to the public. Having devoted his time to the upkeep of Radley Hall—an estate passed down from Richard Wallace and now Hertford’s beautiful residency—Hertford championed art’s relationship with heritage. When considering the Wallace Collection one cannot deny its importance — the collection would not be here today, in all its glory, if it was not for the Richard Wallace’s dedication to share and acculturate the collection to the British public. It supplies the nation with some of the greatest works of art from around the world, giving us an insight into our countries history and the social relations of the growing art market in the 18th and 19th century. Hertford spoke passionately about the importance of “appreciating the background of the Collection” and its vital importance to understanding the works of art’s personal provenance.

The accessibility of the collection has been one of the galleries long-standing critiques. Although readily available to London’s residents, the accomplished and monumental collection is not necessarily accessible to the rest of the world. In light of this, the Wallace Collection in November 2007 began the long and challenging task of digitising every work of art in the collection to be held on an online resource called ‘Wallace Live’. The programme aims to contain a description and image of every work.

Unfortunately this is the only way these works can be seen elsewhere, by the terms of Lady Wallace’s bequest, the Wallace collection is a closed collection, meaning no works may be added or taken away from the collection and they must remain displayed together. Hertford and I agreed that the 'closed’ nature of the Collection was not necessarily beneficial to the Wallace Collection in the twenty-first century. However, Hertford went on to tell me of the gallery’s recent success and soaring visitor rates, reminding me that Hertford House, home of the Wallace Collection, has its physical limitations and the building demands respect and care. With this in mind, I have been informed of the Wallace Collection’s new expanded temporary exhibition space which will very much encourage new audiences and engage with existing visitors of the museum — something Hertford and I are extremely excited about. This space will house the exhibition ‘Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector’ which opens on the 20th June 2018 at Hertford House.

The exciting news that Xavier Bray will take up the directorship of the Wallace was announced in May 2016 and has been taking shape in recent months. Bray is known for his experimental curatorial techniques. Bray was previously the Chief Curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the guest curator of the celebrated Goya: The Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery, London. Hertford praised his “unique approach” to curation and spoke of his excitement for what Bray would bring to the table. In his last year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, under Bray’s direction, contemporary artist Doug Fishbone switched one of the gallery’s Old Master paintings with a cheap Chinese copy, and issued a challenge to the public to spot the imposter. Despite concerns about possible damage to the collection’s reputation, the project was in fact a big success and visitor numbers increased over the opening period. With this in mind Hertford and I discussed possible abstract projects and exhibitions that could take place at the Wallace Collection. Hertford told me how he strongly supported the appointment of Bray and believed that it was possible to be “mindful of the collections rich heritage and Lady Wallace’s stipulations” while still bringing the collection into the 21st century.

Bray stated that “The Wallace Collection is one of the most distinguished collections in London, and a place where one can enjoy an intimate relationship with great art. I am tremendously excited and deeply honoured to be taking on the role of Director of such an august institution. I look forward to working with the staff in continuing and expanding its role as a national collection”. I believe we can all agree that the Wallace Collection has very exciting prospects and can commend the trustees for being so forward-thinking in their appointment of Bray and their engagement with what the 21st century brings for Museums and Collections around the globe. Holding one of the most outstanding art collections, in particular its French eighteenth century artworks, I look forward to seeing how the Wallace Collection, under the supervising eye of its sensational trustee board, can, as stated in their Vision Statement: “take people on the journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary. To make the best and most sympathetic use of new technologies to disseminate the understanding and appreciation of the Collection, both in terms of its objects and the full range of its activities. To develop strong and forward-looking managers who can create and motivate each member of staff to contribute to and achieve the Collection's objectives.”

“To see not with, but through the eye.”

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