MEET THE LAUGHING CAVALIER AT HERTFORD HOUSE
Hertford House is home to the Wallace Collection, a fabulous art collection that belonged to the 4th Marquess of Hertford and his illegitimate son Richard Wallace. It houses Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier along with other priceless paintings, intricate furniture, and elaborate helmets. Entry to the museum is free.
The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN. Phone: 020 7563 9500
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George Montagu, the 4th Duke of Manchester had Hertford House built in the late 18th century because the area was good for duck shooting. Today, it’s right in the centre of London, so there’s not a duck in sight!
Tucked away in the corner of Manchester Square, Hertford House is a mansion that is home to the fabulous Wallace Collection. The collection started when the 4th Marquess of Hertford used the building to house his growing art collection. His illegitimate son, Richard Wallace (after whom the collection is named), added to it by bringing his substantial art collection from his Paris home.
In 1897, Richard’s wife, Lady Wallace, bequeathed the Wallace Collection to the nation. It has been open to the public as a museum since 1900 (although it took breaks during both World Wars).
The impressive grand marble staircase that greets you when you enter the building has an intricate cast iron, gilt brass, and lacquer balustrade. The staircase appears to be part of the original building construction, but on closer inspection of the design at the base of the balustrade you will see horns of plenty overflowing with coins and banknotes, showing that it once belonged in a bank in France. It was bought by Richard Wallace in 1871 and installed in Hertford House three years later.
The Great Gallery is the jewel of the Wallace Collection – a massive room full of priceless paintings by famous grand masters. The most famous is Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier (1624). Nobody knows who the Laughing Cavalier was and, in fact, he is not even laughing but does have a bit of a smile. Wherever you go in the room, the Laughing Cavalier’s eyes will follow you.
As you walk through the rooms among the intricately made furniture, you can literally breathe the atmosphere of opulence and luxury. One of the most imposing pieces of furniture is a wardrobe made by Andre-Charles Boulle – who was the most important cabinet maker for Louis XIV – in 1715.
The armoury section contains elaborate helmets worn by the nobility as well as helmets worn by common soldiers who could not afford to buy fancy armour and had to make them out of whatever material they could find. This type of armour is rare, because after the battle was over soldiers usually melted them down to make more useful items such as cooking pots.
The museum is free, and you can walk around it at your own pace, but if you have a couple of hours, the free guided tour by volunteer historians is highly recommended. When you’re done, retreat to the stunning glass-covered courtyard that is a glamorous location for a café/restaurant with tables set among trees and sculptures.