Once the London home of the Marquises of Hertford, Hertford House stands in the peaceful Georgian Manchester Square, just north of the bustle of Oxford Street (the nearest tube station is Bond Street, Central and Jubilee lines). Built around 1776, at the behest of the 4th Duke of Manchester (because there was good duck shooting nearby), the building briefly housed both the Spanish and the French embassies, though not at the same time. Bought in 1797 by the Seymour family it remained in the family until the widow of Sir Richard Wallace, illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess, bequeathed it to the nation. The title Earl or Marquess Hertford goes back to the twelfth century, but perhaps its most illustrious period was during the sixteenth century when Edward Seymour’s sister, Jane, married Henry VIII and Edward became Duke of Somerset and first Earl of Hertford, subsequently becoming Lord Protector of England during his nephew’s minority.
Sir Richard Wallace was the greatest of a series of collectors and it is his name which is given to the Wallace Collection, a holding of fine and decorative art, ranging from furniture, porcelain, arms and armour to paintings, including old masters. The collection is a world famous and fine one, but the house itself is also very much worth seeing. It is a wonderful stage for the treasures, as Lady Wallace knew, for she specified in the bequest that the whole of the collection must remain on show in Hertford House, never leaving it.
Its rooms are decorated in period, with gilded ceiling mouldings and rich draperies, at the windows and on the walls. The first floor houses much of the art, especially in a purpose built Great Gallery ( see below ), where you will find Hals’ Cavalier, some Van Dyck, Rubens and Murillo. There are specialist rooms showing off paintings from France – Boucher, Poussin, Fragonard and Watteau in the Oval Drawing Room and a Flemish room which includes Rembrandt. My own favourite room of paintings was that containing Venetian views by Canaletto and Guardi ( one of the East Galleries if memory serves ), but I also particularly enjoyed the British painters, Gainsborough, Lawrence and Landseer shown off in their own salon. They are usually augmented by Reynolds, but the dozen Reynolds paintings in the collection form the core of the current exhibition devoted to Reynolds in the galleries beneath Hertford House. Unfortunately I did not have time to see the exhibition, which runs until 7th June and is free to enter. The Reynolds paintings will return to their customary home on the walls of the house at the end of the exhibition.
Downstairs are collections of fine porcelain and Italian majolica. Some of the serving dishes would quite put me off my food, containing, as they do, ceramic versions of the eels and rather ugly shellfish which the dishes were designed to hold. There is exquisite furniture ( I rather fancied the Sun King’s desk and chair, for myself, though one would need a Hertford sized study to put it in ) and the cabinets are very fine. The marquetry too is beautiful, though some of the pieces are too rococo for my taste.
There are also three galleries displaying European arms and armour ( as well as a gallery of Oriental armour ), including that for horses. One incongruity, the little flat shelves sticking out from some of the breast plates of jousting armour. They look a bit like modern cup holders, where one places one’s coffee, but they were of course, a resting place for the lances. Entirely practical.
The Wallace Collection at Hertford House is open seven days a week from 10a.m. to 5p.m. and entrance is free. There are more photographs of Hertford House and the Wallace Collection on Pinterest. Go and take a look.