Visit the Wallace Collection on the hour and you’ll hear the chimes from a French musical clock from the 18th century. Nearby is a 400-year-old solid gold dagger possibly belonging to Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal. And just a few steps away is Louis XV’s commode. It may be best known for its 18th-century French paintings, decorative arts and Frans Hals’s The Laughing Cavalier, but this private collection has many other esoteric and priceless exhibits.
Static since 1890, the Wallace Collection reflects the tastes of five generations of the family who assembled it. Unaware that he was starting a dynasty of collectors, the First Marquess of Hertford’s (died 1794) souvenirs from his grand tour of Europe include six oil paintings by Venetian Renaissance artist Canaletto. They now dominate the dining room.
The Second Marquess added French furniture and Sèvres porcelain before the collection greatly expanded under the Third Marquess, a saleroom agent for the Prince of Wales. He added Rembrandt’s Good Samaritan, one of only five of the collection’s 12 paintings by the Dutch master to be deemed authentic by experts.
But the man responsible for the majority of the exhibits was the heirless Fourth Marquess. He gathered more of the same French craft and Dutch and Flemish paintings including The Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt’s Titus, but it was his esoteric taste that lends the Wallace Collection a special niche appeal.
Alongside a huge haul of European armour are some fabulously rare pieces of Oriental arms and armour. The sword of Ranjit Singh, a Sikh warrior king who captured Lahore in 1799 and ruled for 40 years, is displayed alongside a shield, dagger and a helmet moulded to house a Sikh man’s knot of hair.
Also on show is the tulwar (sword) of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, India, who was killed by the British army in 1799. This and other pieces are essentially ‘war booty’, the most controversial of which is a display case containing swords, a dagger and a remarkable golden death mask believed to belong to King Kofi Karikari of the Asante tribe in modern-day Ghana.
Found (plundered?) by the British Army, they made their way to sales agents in London and subsequently into the Wallace Collection. There have been calls for them, and similar pieces at the British Museum, to be returned to Ghana.
After inheriting the entire collection in 1870, the Fourth Marquess’s illegitimate son Richard Wallace bought Hertford House. Having added to the collection, Wallace died in 1890, leaving everything to his wife who, in turn, left the Wallace Collection to the nation. It opened as a museum in 1900, but has recently been renovated, with a slick restaurant opening in the courtyard, new temporary galleries, a library and two archive rooms.
Whistle-stop visitors won’t want to miss the house’s huge Great Gallery – home to most of the ‘big names’ in the art collection. But with so many other gems and ephemera, the logically laid-out Wallace Collection is a star-studded treasure trove of history.
Don’t miss: Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps’s brutal The Punishment of the Hooks, which depicts blindfolded prisoners being pushed from battlements onto deadly hooks.
The Wallace Collection
Hertford House, Manchester Square, London
020 7563 9500
Open daily 10am–5pm.
London tourist information: www.visitlondon.com