This week being school half term, my sketch buddy Andy and I convened in London for a day of absorbing, and making, art.
Our first port of call was the Wallace Collection, which we’d never before visited. It is home to the Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, and The Swing by Fragonard. These famous paintings suggested the potential tone of the gallery but, keeping an open mind, we hoped that there would be other, less saccharine, delights in store.
Well, the reality was that there was a vast array of ornate ormolu furniture, busts of various King Louis of France, and a huge collection of 17th and 18th century paintings. The surprise element was a somewhat incongruous display of armour from around the world.
We valiantly made our way through the Dutch Masters section, taking what we could from the undeniably skillful paintings, a few of which we found arresting and intriguing, including a Rembrandt self-portrait made in middle age – hard to ignore that compelling gaze.
It was useful to recall that these pictures predated photographic reproduction, and therefore had a role in documenting historical events, and also in displaying a narrative to the viewer, as well as being entertaining or sometimes flattering. Depicting ‘reality’ was undoubtedly important, and the delicacy of touch of the oils, the realism of the fabrics and skin, echoed the desire to truly capture a moment for posterity.
The Swing itself surprised me, as it was smaller (and yet more impressive and detailed) in reality than I’d imagined. It’s definitely a fantasy concoction; the swinger’s feet are improbably tiny, and there’s something rather odd about the anatomy of her leg. Still, it doesn’t stop it being a favourite of jigsaw-makers and chocolatiers over the decades.
Anyway, suffice it to say that Wallace’s tastes were not necessarily ours. As we left, we realised we had somehow missed the jewel in the crown of the collection, the Laughing Cavalier, but that knowledge was not enough to stop us collecting our rucksacks and heading out to our next stop – the beloved V&A.