I feel almost certain that the Wallace Collection doesn’t spend enough time advertising the fact that they have an armoury, otherwise I definitely would have visited before this. Here I was, labouring under the impression that it was just a bunch of boring old Dutch art, when they had this fabulous armoury hidden away in there the whole time! But then again, to be honest, I’d never really given that much thought to the Wallace Collection one way or another (Dutch art or otherwise) until I realised just how dire my blogging situation is becoming (London’s a big city with loads of museums, but after almost four years of blogging, I’ve been to nearly every one of them. I’m seriously worried I’m going to run out of blogging material!) and was desperately searching for any museum in London I hadn’t visited, regardless of how boring and unappealing it sounded.
Although the Wallace Collection is free, which always wins a museum points in my book, it wasn’t doing anything to change my mind about the whole “boring and unappealing” theory at first glance. It was one of those places with a very hushed atmosphere, where you’re afraid to make any noise, and unfortunately, I happened to be wearing some unintentionally jangly boots (they have a little buckle on the back which jingled every time I took a step, which I definitely don’t remember them doing to that extent last year. Must remember to try to remedy that before wearing them again), so I had to do a very weird walk where I stepped very slowly whilst barely raising my feet off the ground. (Side note, I went to see Half a Sixpence after going to the Wallace Collection, and it has a song with the repeated lyric, “clanga janga ringa janga,” (it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds, I swear!) so it might have been appropriate that I wore those boots after all. Side note within a side note: I actually really loved Half a Sixpence! It was cheesy, but that’s kind of what I want from a musical, and the songs were catchy as hell. Like this one.)
It was also the sort of place where there was a guard in every room who would follow you around the room with their beady eyes (or maybe just me on account of my annoyingly loud boots), which makes me really super uncomfortable. I always feel like they’re going to kick me out if I don’t look up to scratch (for the record, I’ve never been kicked out of a museum, but I did get kicked out of malls several times as a teenager on account of looking like a weirdo who was unsettling the normies, and I think it’s given me a complex), and my boots definitely weren’t helping.
In addition, as you may have noticed, the whole place was done up in an opulent-but-ugly Louis “Various Roman Numerals” style (I’m assuming either XIV, XV, or XVI, but I don’t know enough about faux-French interiors to tell the difference), which made me feel really out of place. I was basically just walking through the rooms as quickly as I could (bearing in mind I was trying not to make any noise) so I could say I’d visited it and could blog about it, until I saw a delightful sign hanging over some steps reading, “To the Armouries.”
So I descended into the gloom, feeling glad to be free from the horrors of Louis whatever, only to be met with this magnificent sight at the bottom of the staircase. They really weren’t exaggerating, this was a proper armoury! I’m pretty sure my fondness for armour has been well-documented, but yeah, for a pacifist who isn’t particularly interested in modern instruments of war, I really like armour. I almost did my Master’s in Medieval History instead of Early Modern History based solely on how much I like the bubonic plague and armour, but ended up going Early Modern instead because the programme convenor sounded nicer on the phone than the medieval lady (probably a wise choice in the end, as the Georgians are much more my speed than medieval people. I’m also a big fan of the Victorians…if there was a Master’s programme that combined the Georgians and Victorians, that would have been ideal). Needless to say, I don’t know how an armoury of this calibre in London could have escaped my attention for all these years.
The halls of armour were fabulous, and appeared to be arranged around a “secret” restaurant (I don’t think it’s actually secret, because they mention it on the website, but I didn’t see how you would enter it. Not that I really cared, because museum restaurants aren’t really my scene and we were planning on going to the hole-in-the-wall producing delicious food that is the Roti King later that evening anyway. Roti canai is the best), so they basically took up almost an entire floor of the not-insubstantial building. I also really liked that many of the pieces of armour (not all) had captions; even though I didn’t have time to read them all, it was nice to see after places like the armoury in Graz that had no signage whatsoever, in either German or English.
It wasn’t only armour down here though; there was also an assortment of medieval jewels, religious carvings, and neat things made out of silver, like this ostrich eating horseshoes, which I think may have been a symbol featured on the Wallace coat of arms. I assume this had something to do with the old myth that ostriches could digest metal (I don’t know where the idea came from, but they had an ostrich at the Tower of London back when it housed a menagerie (we’re talking 18th century here), and visitors would feed it nails, presumably until it died, but come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure what ended up happening to that poor ostrich). I guess I haven’t really mentioned the Wallace of the collection until now, but yeah, Sir Richard Wallace was a late 19th century Marquess of Hertford who expanded on the collection started by four of his ancestors, and after he died, his widow bequeathed it to the nation. Which explains both why it is both eclectic, and free.
It also wasn’t just medieval or early modern European armour here; there was a whole room of Eastern armour, which was pretty cool too, although I guess it doesn’t get as much attention as the European stuff because it doesn’t tend to have helmets and face plates made with ridiculous moustaches attached.
After the glorious respite that the armoury provided, I reluctantly headed back upstairs to what I had come to think of as the “stuffy bit” to see the rest of the art. We had reached the long gallery, ubiquitous in stately homes, which was indeed quite long and full of more art.
However, this art was better than most of the crap in the other rooms, because they had the Laughing Cavalier, which I’m pretty sure is famous, and also that rather splendid portrait of George IV (I assume from his Prince of Wales or Regent years, because he was way more enormous by the time he became king).
Aside from that though, the art here was fairly unmemorable, which is why I haven’t talked about it much. Oh sure, there were a surprising number of paintings of chickens (which I love) and also a rather good cow picture downstairs, but most of it was just portraits of various low-level aristocrats, or still lifes of dead animals, and other similarly horrible and uninspiring stuff. Basically, if I hadn’t seen the armouries, I wouldn’t be recommending this place to anyone. But I did, and so I will!
Though in my (very inexpert) opinion, there are only a few pieces of art here worth seeing (let’s be honest, the main attraction of the upstairs rooms is marvelling in how they managed to find curtains hideous enough to match the wallpaper), the armouries are splendid, and clearly a bit of a hidden gem. For that reason alone, the Wallace Collection is definitely worth a look if you’re passing through the Marylebone/Bond Street area, and I felt that it was possibly even worth braving Oxford Street in December (the things I do for this blog)! 3/5 as a whole, but I’d rate the armouries higher.