The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition of art assembled by its namesake, Richard Wallace (1818–90), is both celebration and revelation.1 It’s Wallace’s two-hundredth birthday, a worthy milestone for the museum that holds the single most valuable gift of art the British nation has ever received. This magnitude of philanthropy is itself a shock. The collection of works by Canaletto, Hals, Rembrandt, Poussin, Fragonard, the best British portraitists, and so many others is not entirely a secret pleasure. Though its Manchester Square location in London is not the most conspicuous, connoisseurs of all stripes know the museum well and love it.

Much of the collection was built by four well-known Marquesses of Hertford, yet the titular Wallace is for many a mystery. Likely the illegitimate son of the Fourth Marquess of Hertford, Wallace collected with the passion, limitless budget, and eye for quality of his purported ancestors. His taste, though, was different. He had a most elegant, refined taste for the small and precious, for ornamented Chinese cups, jeweled daggers, and medieval carved ivory. The show celebrates miniaturist sparkle, intricacy, and the joy of close looking.

The Wallace Collection’s Great Gallery. Photo: Purcell.

But who was Richard Wallace? His story is riveting, sad, astonishing, and as rich in pathos as one any Victorian storyteller could have spun.

The First Marquess was an ambassador to France and Viceroy of Ireland. The Second, a longtime MP and official in George III’s court, bought with a Grand Tour taste. The Canalettos and portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough are his. The Third Marquess (1777–1842) acquired what is still one of Britain’s best collections of Sèvres porcelain and French furniture. He bought Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda (1556), among other paintings. The three men were at the pinnacle of English society. Each had a taste for all things French.

The First and Second Marquesses were admired for probity. The Third was the model for the cranky, meddlesome Marquess of Monmouth in Benjamin Disraeli’s 1844 novel Coningsby and for the awful Lord Steyne in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair a few years later. The diarist Charles Greville said of him, “There has been, so far as I know, no such example of undisguised debauchery.”

Richard Wallace, born Richard Jackson, was probably the son of Agnes Wallace, a descendant of William Wallace, the Scottish patriot of Braveheart fame. She married a banker named Jackson, had two children, and then bolted. During her wanderings she met the future Fourth Marquess, then serving in the army. Baby Richard ensued. Agnes soon returned to her husband, but not before depositing her new son with his alleged father in Paris. The boy’s grandmother, the Third Marchioness, insisted the boy remain as a ward.

As a young man, Wallace was a gambler and a speculator, incurring immense debts by his mid-thirties, covered in part by his father. He was already collecting art like an addict and had to sell it to settle his debts. Meanwhile, the Fourth Marquess bought paintings by Watteau, Greuze, Fragonard, and Boucher, expressing a taste for “only pleasing pictures.” Hals’s Laughing Cavalier (1624) must have pleased him greatly: at the auction where he bought it, he paid six times the high estimate.

We don’t know what reformed Wallace, but by the 1860s he had become his father’s secretary and art agent, operating out of Paris, where Chinese loot from the Opium Wars came their way in addition to tips on art for sale elsewhere.

Wallace nursed his mentor through his final, long illness. By all accounts, he was much loved, especially by his grandmother. (Another bit of family lore is that Wallace was really her son via an affair, which would make the Fourth Marquess his half-brother, not his father.) Soon after his funeral, the Fourth Marquess’s lawyer read his will to the assembled mourners in a scene that could have come from Trollope. Its contents might have caused a small earthquake. He left his fortune—including one of the best art collections in Europe—to his secretary of dubious heritage, who was as shocked as everyone, though hardly as enraged. Wallace was now a millionaire with a purpose and a plan.

The collapse of the Second French Empire pried much from newly impoverished royals and private collectors alike. Wallace was there to buy (until he fled, disguised as a woman). In 1871, he bought the collection of the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the superintendent of fine arts under Napoleon III. Pinched French dealers sold to him. British and German aristocrats often turned to him first when agricultural depressions made art expendable. He also bought from artists who needed money but never exploited them.

Wallace was a thoughtful philanthropist. His giving had immediate effects and addressed real needs, not only in the museum but in gifts like drinking fountains built in places where he had homes—not water coolers but pieces of architecture allowing the public to refresh in style. During the German siege of Paris in 1870 and 1871 and the subsequent Commune period, Wallace built temporary hospitals and helped trapped Britons leave the urban war zone. He wanted to stay in France and run for the Chamber of Deputies in 1871. He was barred because of his English birth, despite his French acculturation. He returned to the London home he barely knew, and became the Conservative MP for an Irish constituency where he was the biggest property owner. He was a conscientious, beloved public servant. The collection was famous even while Wallace still owned it. By the 1870s, he was thinking of its future as a public amenity, exhibiting it for a time at the Bethnal Green Museum in a working-class neighborhood in London’s East End. More than two million visitors saw it. England’s entire population was twenty million.

The Great Gallery in the 1870s. Photo: Purcell.

But Wallace’s inheritance was for a time disputed, though a curious quiet surrounded the litigation. In the early 1870s, Wallace developed a close friendship with the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Concurrently, Wallace showed his collection to millions, an unusual outstretched hand of private wealth to public enjoyment. He received his baronetcy at this time and, in 1874, the Tories returned to power under the leadership of another new friend, Benjamin Disraeli. It seems possible a deal was made, so tacit it seemed invisible. It linked a good outcome for Wallace in the courts to the collection’s ultimate home.

Like the Fourth Marquess, who professed to have no children, Wallace saw the collection as his offspring. His own flesh-and-blood family was complicated. Together he and the French Lady Wallace had a son, Edmond; in accordance with family tradition, he had been born long before his parents married. Edmond himself found a French mistress and fathered four children with her, his brood based in Paris. “Mon Dieu,” his father shouted when Edmond told him he was moving there for good, “is there no end to bastards in this family?” They never reconciled, with Edmond dying in 1887.

Wallace lived three years longer. He’d gone from a happy barnacle attached to a great family to a baronet to a dispirited old man. He spent a lot of money and, like many landowners, was hit by drops in commodity prices. He worked fitfully with his lawyers to make a gift of the collection to the nation, never made a final deal, and died believing his wife would honor his wishes, as she did. Whatever remained went to her grandchildren and her late husband’s secretary.

This extensive genealogy helps explain Wallace’s collecting. When I first saw the fine show, I thought, “Why these things?,” donning the marketing hat even retired museum directors like me never leave at home. How was this material going to look on a poster at a tube stop? Nothing was big, splashy, or famous. I kept reminding myself that the show is about Wallace, who had his own acquisitions policy. His taste was part sublime, part flashy. He loved intricate, arcane objects like a set of ceremonial armor made of gold, silver, copper, steel, and velvet and embossed, gilded, blackened, and braided to an inch of its life. It is Milanese, from the 1570s, with decoration so extensive that no plain metal is visible. Provenance was central to Wallace, whether an object bore the ownership of a Medici, a Ghanaian grandee, a king, or a saint.

He loved narrative. A magnificent German box depicts the seduction of the fictional Christian knight Rinaldo by the witch Armida during the First Crusade. A parade shield belonging to the French King Henri II shows the surrender of Calais by England in 1558. The Bell of St. Mura, called “the Book of Kells of Bells,” was said in the eleventh century to have descended from heaven ringing loudly. Some of the art reinforced Wallace’s personal history. In 1872, the year after he got his baronetcy, he bought a grand silver ostrich made in Augsburg in 1600. The bird holds a horseshoe in its mouth, a reference to Pliny’s myth that an ostrich can digest anything, including metal. When he was ennobled, Wallace was granted a coat of arms with an ostrich head and a horseshoe. I take it to signal his taste was as omnivorous as it was perfect.

Though Wallace did buy paintings—and they are the few examples of contemporary art to come into a collection that, in the case of all the marquesses, added artists long after they were dead—this is a decorative arts show designed to feature a part of the collection that should get more attention. Wallace had a pronounced love for trophies and for shiny trinkets, and at points his fascination with these things seems more childlike than scholarly. Once we know his history of illegitimacy and marginality, we can easily discern the collector’s status-seeking and overcompensation.

Wallace was adaptable, to both a convoluted family life and mammoth twists of fortune. Today, it’s his museum that’s doing the adapting. The exhibition inaugurates the museum’s new, impressive rotating exhibition gallery, artfully carved from back-of-house space. The museum also has a new, charismatic director. Owned by the nation, its financial model is changing along with that of every British public museum. It’s confronting a need to raise money privately. And the museum has a recent strategic plan. It’s making changes while balancing a much-adored brand of Old Worldliness against the realities of today.

The new strategic plan runs from this year to 2021 and addresses the installation of the permanent collection. The Great Gallery—among the loveliest and most awe-inspiring in Europe—and the Canaletto gallery are iconic and needn’t change. The arms and armor and medieval and Renaissance decorative arts galleries are cozy warrens for specialists but difficult, dense spaces for those who aren’t, especially school groups. In the Wallace exhibition, where the “greatest of the smalls” have space, majesty, and authority, their own unique qualities are more sympathetically presented. They sing and shine. More open installation is a good idea.

The idea of “Supporting excellence in curatorial research,” as the plan proposes to, is nebulous. One extreme is aiding curators who sit in the library all day. Another is putting them on a touring exhibition treadmill, courting donors, and serving as glorified docents. This is dismal. With the new exhibition space, the museum will find a balance. A good one, where I think it will land, is a more public-minded curatorial focus, with the museum doing some traveling and loan shows. The shows will contextualize the collection, contribute to scholarship through their catalogues, and add variety. The trick is doing these things in the context of Lady Wallace’s bequest, which forbids the display of objects from the collection with art from elsewhere. It will therefore be the curators who will have a more public face.

The museum will join the digital revolution. The collection is already online, but with spotty photography. A new website is coming. The museum will make its objects available for personal and scholarly use free of charge, and use social media to connect with a younger audience. It’s so easy to fall into a black hole of blogs, blurbs, “design your own exhibition” games, podcasts, apps, and other gimmicks. The museum is redolent of timeless, classic values; a serious place where silliness is not allowed; comfortable and comforting; a place where the heart and mind intersect. In deploying social media, tensions are bound to arise. This item in the plan can become a huge money pit. Technology changes quickly, and preferences are more and more finely spliced among demographics. The museum should add a trustee from the technology sector. A savvy voice at the highest level will help produce good decisions. To me, technology’s overarching mission in this case is to promote a museum visit.

The collection and building belong to the nation, meaning the government, meaning the Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. It’s an odd, counterintuitive, even impossible amalgam with a mission to “protect and promote our cultural and artistic heritage and help businesses and communities to grow by investing in innovation and highlighting Britain as a fantastic place to visit.” I tend to read the word “fantastic” with its original meaning: “remote from reality” or, if I’m feeling cheerful, “imaginative or fanciful.” Insofar as a rarefied place like the Wallace Collection is concerned, I take the message from the department as “sooner or later, you’ll be on your own, guys.” The government’s subvention is about 41 percent of the museum’s £6.6 million budget. Five years ago, the museum’s Whitehall grant covered close to 50 percent. This aid will almost certainly decline. The government has long wanted to create a culture sector that generates its own income, relying less on the taxpayers. The museum’s endowment is £8.9 million. At a standard draw of 5 percent, this produces about £450,000 in annual revenue. The museum generates about £1 million in earned income, mostly from a lovely restaurant. The rest comes from fundraising.

The museum’s building presents a challenge. It’s a late-eighteenth-century, Grade II–listed mansion with a Victorian façade, familiar but not loved. Accessibility issues need addressing; the laws are complicated and often a matter of inches will require ugly ramps and weird little elevators. The museum wants an entrance for after-hours events. It might want a special entrance for schoolchildren. My own strongly held philosophy is that every museum visitor should have the same experience in entering the building. When dealing with old buildings, the first rule is “do no harm.” I suppose the British version would be “no monstrous carbuncles allowed.” The museum started as a mansion and still looks like a big house. It should stay that way. The only option is building underground, itself fraught with cost and complexity and rarely satisfactory.

The museum’s board and its director want to boost the endowment to £20 million. Britain’s experience with private philanthropy is newer than most would expect, given the Victorian spirit of giving. This spirit gradually shriveled. All British cultural organizations are now discovering how difficult it is to revive the near-dead.

The museum has made great strides by hiring, in 2016, a director with polish, energy, and scholarly acumen, namely Xavier Bray. He is a specialist in Spanish Golden Age art and also worked as a curator at the National Gallery and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao. His show on Spanish polychrome sculpture, “The Sacred Made Real,” was one of the best I’ve seen in years.

Xavier Bray in the Wallace Collection’s Great Gallery. Photo: The Times.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, where Bray was the chief curator, has launched more than a few museum leaders. Dulwich is good preparation for a museum director. It’s a small, private museum that has assiduously built a fundraising base of individual, corporate, and foundation donors, dramatically increased attendance, and organized consistently strong, scholarly shows. These things go together. My years as a curator at the Clark Art Institute and the Addison Gallery of American Art—two small, tony, and decidedly intellectual places—showed me that scholarship, quality, and chances to learn lead to serious interest among donors and a groundswell of interest among the very considerable numbers of people who value good art intelligently displayed. At Dulwich, and also at the National Gallery, where Bray led the Spanish Art department, curators had to absorb a culture of thinking about the public and cultivating donors. Bray does it by instinct. He will be a smooth fundraiser. Potential donors will look to him for cultural leadership. Bray will be so good at the money game, people will come to him asking how they can help—very good news for this treasured institution.

1 “Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector” opened at The Wallace Collection, London, on June 20, 2018, and remains on view through January 6, 2019.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 49
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