Sir Richard Wallace is one of Britain’s unsung heroes – but not for much longer. To mark the 200th anniversary of his birth next year, the Wallace Collection in London is turning the spotlight on this most private, mysterious and unexpectedly philanthropic of Victorians. Although the museum bears his name, its world-class collections have always been more closely associated with that of Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, who never acknowledged himself as, but was most likely to have been, Wallace’s natural father – or possibly even his grandfather (this family history is stranger than the stuff of fiction). Lord Hertford amassed the celebrated 18th-century French paintings, furniture and porcelain, and Dutch and Spanish Old Masters. Wallace’s contribution – before and after his unexpected inheritance on Lord Hertford’s death – is often overlooked.
At the heart of the celebrations is the institution’s summer exhibition ‘Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector’. The idiosyncrasy and quality of his wildly diverse acquisitions will astonish those who always head for more high-profile holdings such as the Sèvres porcelains or Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier (1634). One inclusion to whet your appetite is the earliest and most seasonal rarity: the Bell of St Mura, acquired by Wallace in 1879.
This eloquent object is thought to have come from the Abbey of Fahan in Country Donegal, founded in the 7th century by St Mura. Such bells are notoriously difficult to date, and its bronze body, probably made at Kells, may well be earlier than the late 11th century cautiously suggested by the Wallace. That layers of decoration – silver filigree and cast plaques, rock crystal and amber inlays, and gold – were added piecemeal over the centuries attest to it being a venerated and even miraculous object. Hand-bells were used to call the brethren to prayer but it seems likely that many, particularly in Ireland where the lion’s share survive, also functioned as relics.
Susan Moore is art market correspondent and associate editor of Apollo.
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