I discovered the Wallace Collection yesterday, a hidden gem of a museum. It’s in a former palatial private residence set across from a stunning private park, quite near Oxford Circus in London and just down the street from the famous Selfridge’s department store.
The museum houses one of the world’s greatest collections of 18th century French and Flemish fine and decorative arts. This is what most museums ought to be like. Each of its room is completely decorated for a specific period, and as if someone still lived there. Fantastically ornate tables and chairs, chests, fireplace surrounds, parquet flooring, sculpture, ceramics, chandeliers, and sumptuous window treatments combine with framed paintings to produce the effect. And, best of all, you can walk among all these things and get your nose right up to them (no touching, of course). It’s kind of like going to Versailles without the velour ropes that keep you from going into the rooms. Really terrific!
So, for example, there’s a room furnished in the style of the Louis XIV era and another ala Marie-Antoinette. The inlaid writing tables are incredible and made with an amazing array of materials, from gold to tortoise shell. Naturally, you may not sit on the gilded chairs, but I have rarely been to a museum that offered so many usable chairs and benches where you could sit down and enjoy the view. And the paintings themselves are superb – Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, Watteau, among others – and are, as I said, very accessible. You can get close enough to really appreciate the brushwork.
There’s also a collection of armor and weapons and a wonderful restaurant in a glass-roofed courtyard. And, best of all, though the Wallace Collection is a national museum and easy to get to, it was not at all crowded. It is easy, with all of the ornate décor, all that visual stimulation, to get a quick case “museum fatigue”, so this is a place that merits several small visits instead of one long one. Check out their web site.