Richard Wallace, the man behind the UK's greatest art collection 

Wallace amassed an extraordinary collection of art and antiquities, including a 16th century boxwood triptych from the Netherlands
Wallace amassed an extraordinary collection of art and antiquities, including a 16th century boxwood triptych from the Netherlands

All the girls are in love with me,” wrote the 17-year-old Lord Beauchamp to his mother in Paris, in 1817. “I have dinners, parties, and balls almost every night (I say this entre nous).”

He might have intended his behaviour to remain "entre nous", but things didn’t quite pan out that way. Nine months later, a Mrs Agnes Jackson, née Wallace, gave birth to a son, Richard. When he was six, she took him to Paris and deposited him with Beauchamp, by then Lord Yarmouth, and first in line to the marquisate of Hertford.

So similar were boy and man in looks, that Yarmouth’s mother took Richard in, recognising him as her son’s child. He grew up surrounded by luxury, in the bosom of the family, at a time when Yarmouth, who became 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1842, was busy spending millions in the name of expanding his family’s art collection.

As one of the richest men in Europe, he could certainly afford it, and he taught his illegitimate son everything he knew, employing him as his private secretary and sending him to salerooms and dealers to scout for works, assess their authenticity and bid on his behalf.

The works the pair amassed during Lord Hertford’s lifetime and those Richard Wallace continued to acquire afterwards – having inherited his father’s entire collection, along with several properties – now form the vast assemblage of fine and decorative art that is the Wallace Collection, bequeathed to the nation in 1897 by Wallace’s widow, Amelie.

A gold trophy head, dated to the 19th century, from the Asante kingdom, in what is now Ghana Credit: The Wallace Collection

Instead, at Hertford House, Wallace’s former London residence in Marylebone, the collection, which at 5,637 objects is the most significant ever made to the nation, is world-renowned. It is best-known for 18th‑century Rococo works, perhaps, and for paintings by Titian, Velásquez and Hals, but also for sumptuous displays of gold boxes and armour. There’s even an 18th-century staircase that came from the Royal Bank of Paris.

Less conspicuous, though, is Wallace himself. He was a mysterious and intensely private man who, says Collection director Dr Xavier Bray, “has always been brushed aside to remain the ghost behind the scenes. For many years, people attributed the strength of this collection to Lord Hertford and his ancestors, but there’s a reason why it’s called the Wallace. He was an extraordinary man, an astute collector with a brilliant eye. Really, we’re only just discovering how much he did. We want to restore his reputation.”

With £1.2 million in funding secured for a new exhibition space opening later this year, the gallery will inaugurate the expanded galleries by celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth. Focusing on his particular and often idiosyncratic contributions to the collection, it will present just 20 objects, but isolated from the Ali Baba’s cave kind of display in which the rest of the collection typically resides. In doing so, it turns the objects, which include a gold trophy head from 19th-century Ghana, an 11th-century bell from Ireland and a medieval hunting horn, “into masterpieces”, says Bray.

The Bell of St Mura, a medieval artefact from Ireland Credit: The Wallace Foundation

These sorts of things would have had little appeal to Wallace’s forebears, who had collected according to the fashions of the time – Canalettos and 17th‑century Dutch for the first Hertford, Reynolds and Gainsborough for the second, Rembrandt and Titian for the third (a Regency rake of whom the diarist Charles Greville said, “No man ever lived more despised, or died less regretted”).

The fourth marquess – Richard’s father – bought predominantly Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher and the like. He bought so many, in fact, that, as one visitor recalled, he didn’t seem to have time to unwrap them. Judging from receipts and sales catalogues, his expenditure was vast, often because he was trying to outbid the banker James de Rothschild, his neighbour on the rue Laffitte and a fellow avid collector.

The area of Paris in which Wallace grew up was full of art dealers and auction houses. It was also the main district for opera and had a clutch of sumptuous restaurants. Hertford lived and deposited his expanding collection at 2, rue Laffitte (he later acquired numbers 4 and 6). Wallace, meanwhile, was installed with his grandmother, Mie-Mie (the woman to whom Lord Hertford had written of his amorous exploits) and Hertford’s half-brother, Henry Seymour, on the neighbouring rue Taitbout. Hertford gave Wallace an allowance of £1,000 (about £50,000 today), as well as carriages and horses.

Two imperial wine cups from 18th century China Credit: The Wallace Collection

Wallace was about 25 when he began acquiring works of art on his father’s behalf: in 1843, he bid on some Sèvres porcelain that Hertford believed had belonged to Marie Antoinette (there was a craze at the time for buying up anything connected to Versailles and particularly the former queen, whose objets were considered the epitome of taste and refinement – Hertford was a particular fan of anything with royal provenance, a predilection that marks the entire collection).

Marie Antoinette’s beheading might have been several decades distant, but Paris was still roiling with political upheaval. Hertford dispatched Wallace, Seymour and Mie-Mie to the coastal town of Boulogne in 1848, to escape the wave of revolutions that led to the creation of the second monarchy. It was here Wallace became a local celebrity, donating a large sum of money for the town to buy a new lifeboat following a maritime disaster, which they named the Richard Wallace in his honour. In 1854, it was used by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugene during a visit.

Wallace’s taste for philanthropy never left him. During the siege of Paris in 1870-71, during the Franco-Prussian War, he paid for a hospital to be built in the grounds of his villa on the rue Laffitte and took it upon himself to look after the destitute British still in the capital, keeping some 1,200 Britons alive by distributing rations and small amounts of money. By the end of the siege, he had privately contributed 2.5 million francs to the needy – about £5 million today. The last balloon to leave Paris after it had capitulated was named after him and he received a Légion d’Honneur for his efforts.

A silver ostritch statuette from Augsburg, Germany (c.1600) Credit: The Wallace Collection

All this didn’t bode well for his art, though. He had hidden what he could under a layer of planks in the (thankfully vast) premises, but when, in 1871, the Tuileries palace was burned to the ground, he moved as much of his collection as he could to London. Here, Queen Victoria gave him a baronetcy. Not because of who his father was (by now it was accepted that he was Hertford’s son), or for the fact he was as rich as Croesus, but for his services to the English during the Paris siege.

It must have been hard for him to leave France – before he left, he presented the city with 50 cast-iron drinking fountains designed by the sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg, which soon became popularly known as “Wallaces”. Many of them still survive. One has been re-erected in front of Hertford House.

Before he installed his collection at Hertford House, he lent a large proportion of it to Bethnal Green museum. Opened by the Prince of Wales in 1872, it stayed there for the greater part of three years and was visited by five million people, many of them the local poor. Having returned to France, Wallace died in 1890, at his house in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. He was buried in the Hertford family grave at Père Lachaise.

Richard Wallace: the Collector opens in June. Details: