Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector review – glories from the age of...

Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector review – glories from the age of global plunder

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A gold face glitters under a spotlight in the cave of curiosities that is the Wallace Collection’s new exhibition space. Is it a French rococo whatnot? A Renaissance objet d’art? These are the kinds of European treasures this museum is famous for. But no. The beaten gold mask that holds you enthralled in this gorgeous exhibition was made in the Ashanti empire in west Africa in the 18th or 19th century. It is a masterpiece of African art that has lain tucked away in the abundance of the Wallace Collection since Victorian times.

When the British empire was at war with the gold-rich Ashanti empire in 1873-74, this astonishing object was looted from the royal palace in Kumasi. It ended up in the hands of the royal jeweller Garrard and Co, which sold it to the wealthy and omnivorous collector Richard Wallace.

This exhibition about Wallace – who was born 200 years ago, in 1818 – makes it clear what an atypical Victorian he was. Born illegitimate in London, he was taken to Paris to be educated by the family of his mother’s lover, the expatriate fourth Marquess of Hertford. He became the marquess’s private secretary and, in 1870, inherited his vast fortune. He was, almost certainly, Hertford’s son.

Ornate Chinese cups that were used by the Quianlong emperor in the 18th century.



Ornate Chinese cups that were used by the Qianlong emperor in the 18th century. Photograph: The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, as it is called today, was started in Paris by the Marquess of Hertford, but it was Wallace who brought it to London and built the house that still holds it. He indulged his passions as a collector in the auction rooms of Victorian London, bidding against his rivals, the Rothschilds, for treasures from all over the world. This exhibition picks out some of his most precious finds to create a sumptuous survey of art and opulence, a portrait of the art collector as dreamer.

This a great way to inaugurate the Wallace’s new underground exhibition space, an atmospheric lair that includes the Victorian coal vaults. Their arches now hold Wallace’s treasured Renaissance daggers and jewels. The dagger of Henri IV of France, made in about 1599, is lavishly inlaid with mother of pearl, yet Wallace bought it for sentimental reasons: Henry IV was a champion of religious tolerance who ended the wars of religion in France and was assassinated for his courage. In Paris, you can still find the Wallace fountains, free water points for the poor in a neo-Renaissance style that he put up and paid for after living in Paris during its siege and the commune in 1870-71.

Detail of a boxwood miniature triptych on display in the exhibition.



Detail of a boxwood miniature triptych on display in the exhibition. Photograph: Cassandra Parons/The Wallace Collection

Wallace was a good European with a great eye for treasures. His boxwood statuette of Hercules, carved by Francesco Pomarano in about 1520, is a throbbingly homoerotic masterpiece of club-wielding muscle. A maiolica plate with a crowd of naked female bathers painted on it in 1525 is equally lusty. There was nothing puritanical about this Victorian collector who gleefully amassed things that once belonged to European rulers. The Horn of Saint Hubert, a coveted medieval relic with rich carvings done in the 15th century, was once the property of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Yet, that’s nothing. In researching this show, the curators established that two ornate Chinese cups in the collection were used by the Qianlong emperor in the 18th century in a ritual ceremony to ensure the stability of China.

It didn’t work. Wallace bought the cups at a Paris auction in 1872. They had been looted from the Summer Palace when it was destroyed by Britain in 1860 in the second opium war.

Wallace was a buccaneer collector in an age of global plunder and capitalist rapacity. The result is one of the world’s finest public art collections, a treasury we all share. In picking out some of its lesser-known wonders in a sharp, seductive light, this lovely exhibition sends you into the rest of the gallery to explore its strangeness and beauty with new eyes.

Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is at the Wallace Collection, London, from 20 June until 6 January.



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