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The Great Gallery at the Wallace Collection

12 September 2014

London Calling sent Jonathan Velardi to discover one of the finest collections of Old Master paintings in the world, at the reopening of the Wallace Collection's Great Gallery.

A new masterpiece made of silk, plaster and gold leaf is unveiled in London. Not so much a grand sculpture but an ambitious architectural undertaking located in an oasis of fine art.  After its two-year refurbishment, the Great Gallery at the Wallace Collection reopens to reclaim its title as one of the finest collections of Old Master paintings in the world.

The £5 million project comes after thirty-five years since the gallery’s last upgrade and its twenty-first century refurbishment secures the Wallace’s legacy as home to “the greatest picture gallery in Europe”, most famously described by the late art historian Kenneth Clark. The Great Gallery has been the showcase space in this historic town house since the late nineteenth-century, with works by the finest painters across seventeenth-century European schools such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Reynolds and Velázquez - free from any reproductions.

Commissioned by Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, the gallery displayed works of art collected by previous generations of the family on its completion in 1875. As was the intention when the gallery was built, visitors to this private residence today will experience the impact envisioned on arrival in the Great Gallery as they tour the preceding network of smaller exhibition rooms. As well as a decorative overhaul of the plasterwork and gilding that were inspired by original plans overseen by Sir Richard Wallace, the walls have been lined in Pompeian red silk with a brocatelle pattern woven by the distinguished French textile house, Prelle of Lyon. Red silk was a colour popular in many nineteenth-century picture galleries to offset the dark palette of the paintings in their heavy gilt frames.

Most notably different to the gallery’s genetic is the ceiling. Extensive structural works were carried out in order to install a large lay light that runs along the space to allow for controlled daylight viewing. It is surrounded by an ornamental lattice design that is similar to the architectural detailing from 1875 and draws the eye down to the artistic splendour of the collection that hangs below the cornicing.

The reopening has provided the opportunity to reconsider the Great Gallery’s curation that now concentrates on the cultural exchange between the European schools of the period in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and France. In a departure from museum standards, artists from their respective schools are exhibited side-by-side in a double hang installation. Visitors are invited to travel through the different styles of these schools in the same way the artists at the time would have done so as they embarked across Europe in search of patronage outside of their homeland. The unique curation is an exploration of themes on religion, royalty and nature, where historical and contextual narratives are allowed to bounce off one another from wall to wall.

Celebrated titles by Poussin (A Dance to the Music of Time), Van Dyck (Paris) and Thomas Lawrence’s informal portrait of George IV all vie for attention. The Great Gallery also features one of the world’s most important collections of Dutch and Flemish still life works by Jan Weenix and Melchior d'Hondecoeter, who both specialised in the subjects of game and hunting. During the gallery’s two-year closure, a pair of majestic compositions by the artists were cleaned to reveal a vibrant landscape of rich colour; the platinum plumes of hunted game expose their makers’ exquisite execution.

Further highlights include The Rainbow Landscape by Rubens that hangs central in the space and benefits from the modified daylight glowing on its multicoloured arch. FrançoisLemoyne’s Perseus and Andromeda meets Titian’s masterpiece of the same subject and fortifies the curation’s motive of new narratives to be identified - namely the influence of Titian and Italy for many of the great masters, which continued through to the eighteenth-century. As well as paintings, period bronzes and furniture are on display by prominent artists and craftsmen. Exceptional marquetry from the French and German workshops of André-Charles Boulle and Adam Weiswelier respectively, feature alongside sculptures from across Europe that exemplify the personal tastes of several generations of the Hertford family.

As a result of many works returning to the Great Gallery, the rest of the Wallace Collection has subsequently experienced a re-hang and therefore worthy of a visit alone to explore the extensive displays of world-class objets d’art, furniture, porcelain and armoury.

The Great Gallery re-opens at the Wallace Collection on 19th September with a programme of gallery talks, special events and evening openings throughout the year. Admission  is free, for further information please click here.

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