Friday, December 02, 2005

London's Wallace Collection

We run the best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen outside the US. It’s a bold claim but let me offer some supporting metrics. During our time in London alone, we have served up over 250 pounds of turkey to an estimated 300 people. This year, the turkey weighed in at 27.5 pounds and looked suspiciously like a small child. It’s not surprising then, that after all that buying and cooking and washing, and talking and drinking, I wanted to take Friday off and prowl around London with our annual Thanksgiving houseguest from Germany. We were headed for the British Museum to see the big exhibition on the Persian Empire when I realised that in my post pilgrim haze, I had directed us onto the wrong bus. This realization came to me as we rounded Marble Arch. “Quick, get off Margery!”

And there we were, slightly worse for wear, standing on Oxford Street in the crazy run up before Christmas in need of a plan. “I know, we’ll head for the Wallace Collection.” Only 3 blocks from Selfridges, in an imposing Georgian mansion, this museum houses an absolutely fabulous collection of fine art amassed by the Marquesses of Hertford over the course of four generations. The house is jam packed with paintings, porcelain, furniture and armour but for me, on that day, the best part about the Wallace Collection was that it represented an “oasis of calm”. Finding serenity in Central London at any time is difficult, but finding it one month before Christmas is a miracle.

Much of the Wallace Collection was amassed by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, a stalwart NoCrowds proponent if ever there was one. Brought up by his mother in Paris, and one of the richest men in Europe, he was considered witty and intelligent, was friendly with Napoleon III, but seemed to prefer living with his treasures as a virtual recluse. He managed to get out enough to produce an illegitimate son who inherited and enhanced the collection which was ultimately given to the nation by his widow, Lady Wallace in 1897.

Like the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris and the Frick Collection in New York, the Wallace Collection demonstrates what a vast fortune could accomplish in the days before income tax. There are Fragonards and Watteaus, Rembrandts and Rubens, Canaletto and Velazquez. If painting is not your thing, there is furniture, porcelain, sculpture and glass and if, like my long suffering husband, you have had your fill “of all that namby pamby stuff”, there is a vast collection of arms and armour that could keep all the Rambo members of your family amused.

After spending money you don’t have at the surrounding stores, it is lovely to enter this majestic house without opening your wallet. The audio guide is a snip at £3 and the gift shop is more tasteful than most. The restaurant, Café Bagatelle, serves morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea in a pretty sculpture garden and is managed by the same French company that runs the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.

I have been to the Wallace Collection countless times, each time delighted with the experience. The house, its location, the collection, and the ability to enjoy it all without crowds and tour groups makes this “oasis of calm” just off Oxford Street one of my favourite destinations in London.

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN
Tel: 0207 563 9500

Open daily 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM except Dec. 24, 25, 26
Admission: Free
Bond Street Tube

Photo of Jean-Honore Fragonard's "The Swing" 1767, from the Wallace Collection.

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