What is your role at The Wallace Collection?
I am the resident specialist for French paintings, which means I am responsible for thinking about exhibitions and displays, writing articles, and making sure we know everything that we possibly can about the works in our care.
I also oversee the physical wellbeing of these works, so if something needs to be conserved, I work closely with our contract painting conservators throughout the process, advising on the aesthetic aspects of the restoration and ensuring that the frames contain the pictures safely.
What can be found at The Wallace Collection?
Our collection encompasses 5,500 objects, and we are particularly renowned for our French paintings. Our holdings are some of the best outside France, so it’s a real privilege for me to work so closely with these iconic works. The collection was built up by the first four marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, so it’s extremely representative of personal as opposed to institutional taste.
What is your favourite painting?
We have many famous works at The Wallace Collection, such as Fragonard’s The Swing and Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, but the painting that is most special to me is Antoine Watteau’s Voulez vous Triompher des Belles?. It’s a work on panel, barely larger than a sheet of A4 paper.
As you look at the picture, you see it’s a group of people who are beautifully dressed. You can see the shimmer of silk – it’s a visually sumptuous painting. But as you look at it you start to wonder what these people are thinking and feeling. There’s an element of ambiguity in some of the gestures and the ways in which people are interacting. It’s not just about having fun, there’s something else going on that’s a little more nuanced.
Watteau created a genre known as ‘Fête Galante’ and in these paintings you see representations of beautifully dressed aristocrats relaxing in these very lush parkland settings. This was at the very end of Louis XIV’s reign, and up to this point the French aristocracy had basically been held at Versailles.
At the end of his reign, they were finally able to break free and move back to their estates and begin investing in art. So I think there’s this real sense of a sigh of relief being felt at this moment when people are finally able to leave and do what they want. And that comes out in art in this fascinating way, because Watteau starts painting these beautiful, jewel-like, small-scale pictures that are very much about the pursuit of pleasure and people conversing, flirting, reading and making music in these outdoor settings.
Clearly there was something in these paintings that was very attractive to one of our founders, the 4th marquess, because he was responsible for collecting the majority of our works by Watteau. It’s the 300th anniversary of Watteau’s death this year and we have been spending a lot of time relighting and refurbishing most of our French galleries, including the Small Drawing Room, which is where six of our eight paintings by Watteau hang. Voulez vous Triompher des Belles? is so small and is tucked in a corner, but it really is a very touching painting that embodies the mood and ethos of its time.
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