23 July 2012

The Wallace Collection is a delight

The Wallace Collection is buried away in the heart of Marylebone and that is my excuse for not having been there before.

It is also a place that has hardly registered with me over the years; no friends have enthused about it and none of the what's-on-in-London emails that I get have mentioned it.

What finally broke this particular piece of ice was being in the area with some time to spare due to an exhibition that I went to see at the Royal Academy (The Weird, the Wacky and the Wonderful) consisted of just a few photographs when I had allowed myself an hour and a half to see it. I used the brilliant Art Fund iPhone app to find out what else was on in the area and it reminded me that the Wallace Collection was nearby.

I had no idea of what to expect there, and that is just how I like it.

Approaching the house gives you no idea of what is inside. It is a reasonably large building on a reasonable posh square but, frankly, the frontage is ugly and gives you no clue that there is beauty inside.

The house is an interesting mix of living quarters that are stuffed with art works and purpose built galleries that are even more stuffed with art works.

The largest of these galleries stretches across the back of the house on the first floor.

Each of the many rooms is decorated in a different colour and pattern so there is a real sense of progression as you move around the house.

Each room has a printed list of all works of art and a member of staff to ensure that they stay there. And, best of all, photography is allowed (without flash) so there is no need to be handle the camera discretely.

The relative lack of people there suggests that I was far from alone in my lack of awareness of the gallery. The scale and quality of the collection is impressive and it should be as busy as, say, Tate Britain, which is also fairly well hidden.

The pictures are stuck thickly on the wall in much as they are at the V&A which also struggles for space. Below them a few pieces of furniture and sculpture break up the flatness of the walls and also give you something else to look at.

The rooms are themed and this one is the Nineteenth Century Gallery. There are twenty-five galleries altogether.

I am no expert on painting (not even close) and I judge pictures the same way that I judge photographs, on composition, colour and impact. Or, to put it another way, I know what I like. And I like this stuff.

There is a warmth and comfort in most of the paintings. These are peaceful landscapes and gentle gatherings.

A few of pictures have individual impact (a bright picture of a man riding a horse at a gallop comes to mind) but the real impact comes from their strength in numbers. The galleries work like a collage where the overall effect is much greater than that of the individual items used to make it.

The room that had the most impact for me was the Venice Room, which the Wallace collection prefers to call West Gallery I.

They claim to have "an outstanding collection of Venetian views by Antonio Canaletto and Francesco Guardi." I agree.

Downstairs there is more furniture and a large collection of porcelain that is mostly stuck behind protective glass making it very hard to photograph.

Not that that mattered as I found it almost as ugly as the furniture and I concentrated on the paintings instead.

As in the galleries the aim seems to be to see how many you can get on a wall and the simple act of giving every one some individual attention means that it takes a long time to move through the rooms.

It also means that the hour or so that I spent there gave me time to do little more than work out the layout of the building and to study just a small fraction of the paintings. So I'll be going back one day and then I'll allow myself a sensible amount of time to discover and appreciate the best of the paintings.

The Wallace Collection has much the same feel as the V&A (which is a good thing) and it adds to this a more natural scale by being in a house, all be it a rather grand house. The layout also makes it easier to explore than places like the V&A and Tate Britain where it is easier to get lost than to find what you are looking for.

All that makes it an excellent gallery. And it is open every day and it is free.

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