For the first time in over a century, one of central London’s lesser known, but rather wonderful museums, the Wallace Collection is to be allowed to lend its collection of grand master paintings to other venues.
This may not sound significant, as museums do that sort of thing all the time — but the founding documents for the Wallace Collection have generally been interpreted as banning it from lending anything to anyone.
The Wallace Collection was formed by four generations of Marquesses of Hertford and by Sir Richard Wallace (the supposed illegitimate son of the fourth Marquess), between the 1780s and the 1880s. The Collection was bequeathed to the Nation by Sir Richard Wallace’s widow, Lady Wallace in 1897 and opened as a museum in 1900.
Lady Wallace’s bequest stated that the collection ‘shall be kept together unmixed with other objects of art’, which has always been implied to mean that it cant be split up — by lending or selling anything. By extension, this has also been understood to mean that the Wallace Collection cannot exhibit works from elsewhere alongside its own collection nor lend to temporary exhibitions.
For the home of Frans Hals’ the Laughing Cavalier, this was no laughing matter, and the collection has been untouched for 119 years.
However, the ban on loans is not explicitly stated as such, and Sir Richard himself often arranged for objects to be lent to other museums. The conclusion reached by the museum is that temporary loans would not be going against the bequest and this would be entirely in keeping with Sir Richard’s desire to share great art with the widest possible audience.
The Wallace Collection recently applied to the Charity Commission for an Order which has now put in formal writing that they are allowed to lend objects to other museums.
In a way, it’s the end of a curious tradition with this particular museum that always drifted around like an unspoken miasma, that the collection is as it was over a hundred years ago, and that it would never leave its Hertford House home. If you want to see some of the finest collections of Old Master paintings, then you have to come to this one building in London to see them.
Then again, not many people knew about that quirk of the museum, so it’s probably not a huge change, but the ending of weird traditions can be a sad thing, even when the end result, that more people will get to see the collection is good thing indeed.
The Wallace Collection is open daily, and is free to visit.