Not even ten minutes on foot away from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street the connoisseur tourist finds Manchester Square with the Hartford House on one side. The building contains one of the world’s finest private collections ever assembled by a single family, and since 1897 when the widow of Sir Richard Wallace died leaving to Britain its largest private bequest ever, no artefact has been taken away or added.
When I arrived there on a Sunday afternoon a free guided tour had just begun. The guide was clearly in love with the house, the art collection and the rococo period from which most artefacts come which was a good thing because her enthusiasm was infectious.
The first rooms show the portraits of the Hartford/Wallace family, but you don’t want to know their history! It’s rather complicated due to illegitimate children and constant country-hopping between England and France. More often France than England because of which the ambiance of the museum is predominantly French.
In the house proper the guide made us stand in front of cabinets and wardrobes and admire the material, the craftsmanship and intricate patterns. Without her I would certainly not have looked for minutes at powder-boxes, pomade pots, clothes brushes, chandeliers, mirror frames and writing tables with wood intarsia or an inkstand with delicately painted putti, rose garlands and miniature globes, surmounted by the French Royal Crown. There was a bell inside the crown once so that the princess to whom it once belonged could ring for a servant to come and fetch her letter.
From the landing to the first floor one looks at two enormous pictures by Boucher from the middle of the 18th century, "The Rising Sun" and "The Setting Sun", strange titles because what they show is rosy-fleshed nakedness in abundance, so much so that a commentator at the Salon of 1753 remarked that one shouldn’t take one’s wife or daughter to the exhibition, the nudity was too shocking. I bet he didn’t close his eyes, though, but fought heroically against the shock and went on looking!
Do pictures have an aura? Some do, I believe. When I entered a room I was magically drawn to the picture ‘The Swing’ painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in 1787 which according to a critic is ‘awesome and drop-dead gorgeous‘. I agree wholeheartedly.
We are in a lush green garden, a man (the husband) is somewhat hidden under a bush beside the tree onto whose main branch a swing is tied. He’s got a rope in his hand with which he has set it in motion. A young woman, clad in a pink dress with several layers of petticoats, a stark contrast to the green of the background, sits laughing on the swing, she’s just kicked off one of her shoes and set it flying into the air thus revealing a part of her leg at which a man (her lover) who’s kneeling in front of the swing is peeping. It could be kitschy, but it isn’t; if you’re in a foul mood, go and look at the picture, you’ll leave smiling, you’ve just looked at pure joy.
Rococo artists were not interested in depicting the drabness of life, the paintings are ‘dream-like, escapist and untainted with the realities of everyday existence‘ (the same critic).
On to the gallery, a big room for the main part of the collection, meaning Rubens, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Velasquez, Van Dyck, Titian, Watteau, in the adjoining rooms there are Flemish and Italian masters, among them 20 paintings of Venice by Canaletto, and many more pictures by many other big names, one can get dizzy there.
We were in a house people lived in, yet didn’t see any real living quarters, no kitchen, no bedrooms, so I asked the guide if we would get to see where the former residents slept? She thanked me for the question and told the whole group that they had slept on this floor. I looked at her open-mouthed, what? Stinking rich and no beds? Did they sleep on the floor to guard their pictures? After a while the penny dropped, ha! Not on ‘the’ floor, but on ‘this’ floor! Floor, one of the words with different meanings (English for beginners!), I’m sure I can use this in class one day.
The tour ended there, we were informed what else there was to see in the building, but asked to go there on our own. The collection of Armouries on the ground floor is also famous worldwide, I looked closely at the shafts of some rifles and admired the excellent craftsmanship, inlays of ivory, ebony and mother of pearl, but the whole display gave me the creeps. I find it obscene to see arms as objects of beauty and have them decorated and ornamented.
I looked briefly at the collection of majolica plates, did not go into the museum gift shop although it looked enticing and decided to call it a day, I felt I’d deserved a piece of cake in the café in the courtyard which has got a glass roof transforming it into a covered plaza. The café is run by the French company which is also responsible for the restaurant in the Louvre and the restaurant on the Eiffel Tower, but alas, it was not to be. I had stayed in the museum for too long and was asked to leave, because they were closing.