The Wallace Collection is in an Italianate mansion on London’s Manchester Square a couple of blocks north of Selfridges Department Store. It’s a National Museum, free, and definitely a 4 Compass attraction.
This museum’s floor plan calls Wallace “the finest collection of art ever assembled by one family”. This involved 5 generations, 4 Marquesses, 3 floors full of palatial decor, 2 centuries of the kind of possessions that the super rich doted on, and Lady Wallace.
Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess, inherited the collection and one year later married his long-time mistress, a perfume shop employee with an impressive name–Julie Amelie Charlotte Castelnau.
After Richard’s death Julie, who reportedly had zero enthusiasm for his stuff but was Lady Wallace, bequeathed it to the nation with the stipulation that it be a closed collection, meaning that nothing could be added or taken away. And that’s part of my problem. The Collection opened to the public in 1900, and, even though a lot has been moved around, it has become an ornate time capsule. If you like bygone European palaces, you’ll love The Wallace.
I wandered through 25 galleries looking for the inevitable Rembrandt and quickly became used to seeing valuable art hanging under other paintings and over doors (Velasquez!), de’Medici wine coolers, cabinets crowded with Sevres porcelain, etc. The Rembrandt was in East Gallery #1.
Luckily Ruth and I met Peter. On the staff and an avid traveler, Peter was soon to be on his way to the Atlas Mountains and suggested we check out the easy-to-overlook snuff-box collection. Royalty and the wealthy used snuff boxes to impress each other. Anyone could own a Watteau, but those who wanted to cause real envy pulled out a Jean Ducrollay snuff-box, the 18th century equivalent to a Rolex watch. Like Faberge eggs, most had secret compartments to further one-up.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret was up 32 difficult, claustrophobic wooden steps. At the top was a cramped reception area almost as creepy as the rest of the place. Under the roof of St. Thomas church/hospital, this benighted medical facility was completely hidden and forgotten for 100 years and rediscovered in 1956. Like Lady Wallace, those who found it must have decided on a closed collection with the further instruction that nothing be put away. The medical mayhem visitors see includes an entire 1822 operating theatre, an herb apothecary that even Harry Potter would avoid, leech jars, scarificators, etc. The only plus is that OOTMHG is in the shadow of The Shard, London’s 87 story, 1004 feet spire that’s currently the tallest building in the EU. Steve McKenna, the Aussie journalist who included The Old Operating Museum… in his list of 10 “intriguing alternatives” while visiting London, said, “you may need a stiff drink after a visit here.” May?
Tomorrow: 2 more avoidable attractions.