A museum is the seat of the Muses, a temple dedicated to the goddess of art; this is the meaning of the Greek word, reaching us via Latin. A collection is the fruit of the love affair between someone besotted by art and the works he amassed. It’s the synergy created by the different pieces that belong to different times and are displayed together. Despite examples of artificially inflated prices and exploitation of artists, many of us still hold the romantic view of the art collector. I imagine the knight in shining armour roaming the continents in search of hidden treasures, which he would protect and treasure for generations to come.

An Englishman in Paris

I found the embodiment of this knight in the mysterious character of Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, creator of the Wallace Collection. Like the previous Marquesses before him, he collected art that was fashionable at the time and had some connection to the Royal family. More than his ancestors, he appears today as a real admirer – and to some degree a connoisseur – who had the conviction of his own taste. The combination of discerning taste (or good advice) and wealth makes for a successful collector. Added to that, luck and determination are the ingredients that ensure a lasting and valuable legacy.

One of the wealthiest men in Europe, Lord Hertford was also witty, smart and well connected. He must have been one of the most eligible bachelors of his time, yet a bachelor he remained. Little is known about his private life. He renounced a political career that might have led to his becoming Prime Minister, and left England to join his mother, the formidable Maria Emilie Fagnani, in Paris. Maria Fagnani was the daughter of the 4th Duke of Queensberry or possibly the daughter of George Selwyn; both men believed themselves to be her father; both men left her very large legacies.

Being a rich man in Paris at that time suited Hertford. Napoleon III was a personal friend and the Second Empire provided a satisfactory environment to reside in; he fitted in well with his wealth and taste, his wit and lack of social responsibility. He lived on the corner of Rue Lafitte and Boulevard des Italiens in a luxurious and tastefully furnished apartment. He was closed to, and probably frequented, exclusive clubs, chic cafes, but also the best art dealers and auction rooms.

Imagine the atmosphere in the Paris sale room on 27th March 1865; the air of excitement and expectation as the auctioneer invited bids for Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier. The baron James de Rothschild and Lord Hertford fought for the painting until a final bid of 51,000 francs secured the painting for the Marquess. Hear the gasps of surprise – such a high price for the work of a relatively obscure painter! Obscure no longer, as this auction sale resuscitated Hals’ reputation.

The great art collection

The Laughing Cavalier – not really a cavalier, and not quite laughing, so intriguing and painted in such exquisite detail - was just one of over 600 painting and other works of art amassed by Lord Hertford.; He would visit art sales rooms, shopping for painting and objets d’art, but often he was offered works by dealers or private owners familiar with his taste and interests. He acquired works by Boucher, Greuze, Fragonard and Watteau, among others. Often the purchase would be made by his dealer Samuel Mawson, whom he trusted implicitly.

Among the most famous pieces in his collection is Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing, or Les hazards heureux de l’escarpolette; it featured in films, caricatures and novels. Measuring just 81 x 64 cms, the painting depicts centre-stage a young woman wearing an elegant peach colour dress and a shepherdess hat, high on a swing. A young man, in a vantage position in the bushes on the left, looks right up her billowing skirt and for the avoidance of doubt his arm is pointing to the area of interest. Apparently unaware of the young man’s presence, an older man propels the swing from the shadows. As the young lady swings, she allows one of her shoes to fly off in a gesture of abandonment. The statue of the putto above the young man signals, with its finger on its lips that we should keep quiet about all that. It is a frivolous, nearly erotic painting; the setting is a luxuriant garden, the branches and leaves conveying a wild, uncontrollable nature.

Several painting purchased by the Marquess have a romance-based narrative and some show quite a lot of flesh. In particular his collection of Francois Boucher’s sensual paintings - Venus and Vulcan, Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan, Cupid a Captive, The Judgement of Paris – is as close to an Erotica album as one would dare at that time. Everything is lovely and pink, there is no hint of violence or unpleasantness, not even in The Rape of Europa. Continuing the family tradition, Hertford enriched the collection with several 17th century Dutch masters (Gerard Ter Borch, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen), Rembrandt, Rubens. As well as paintings, he collected porcelain, objets d’art and furniture.

A taste for royalty

The most famous piece of furniture in the world, a commode designed for the bedchamber of Louis XV, was acquired by Lord Hertford by 1865. A fine example of Rococo ornate furniture, it is stamped with the valued mark of the Chateau de Versailles (two intersecting Vs) and the stamp 'FAIT PAR CAFFIERI' confirms that it was executed by Jacques Caffieri, the well-known sculptor and bronzier. In Louis XV bedroom, the commode was facing the fireplace and the flickering fire light was reflected on the asymmetrical, exuberant mounts decorating it. As he lay dying, and maybe hallucinating, the king declared he was already dead and among the flames of hell.

Marie Antoinette is probably the most controversial character in the history of France and objects related to her have always attracted a lot of interest. Later associated with intrigue, promiscuity and the dubiously attributed quote “qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, Marie Antoinette arrived in Paris as a girl of 15. She missed her native Vienna and her mother, Maria Theresa, so she spent a lot of time writing letters. The correspondence was safely kept in her secretaire, a beautiful piece by Jean-Henri Riesener. Decorated with iconographical marquetry, including the cockerel of France, it had the great advantage that it could be shut and locked very quickly, the letters instantly hidden from the prying eyes of impromptu visitors.

The sale of the contents of the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s preferred place of leisure, took place two months before her execution by guillotine. On the sale poster there is a note indicating that items can be transported abroad free of tax. Indeed, many works of art from Versailles and other palaces are to be found outside France. The 4th Marquess of Hertford may have benefitted from this tax break, as his collection of Marie Antoinette objects is one of the largest in the world.