Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Origin of the World, an extended footnote, part one

As I was saying before I interrupted myself . . .

But first, be warned that this tale is only tangentially connected Courbet's Origin of the World. Hence the post's title/headline. If you're not interested in the comings and goings of the English aristocracy, you might want to skip away now. On the other hand, I'm not generally that interested in that kind of thing and I did find myself drawn in.

Think of it as an intermezzo - a kind of the link between Courbet's painting and the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. It's just one of those intriguingly complicated family stories that are irresistible but don't really lead you anywhere. Not anywhere clear anyway, just somewhere interesting: to a family which has been described as having pursued 'art with great dedication, while leading the most confused and odd private lives.'

The art collection that we know as the Wallace Collection was started by Lord Hertford - the Lord Hertford who died in 1870, that is. His non-noble name was Richard Seymour-Conway. In an 1843 probate action, 'he was exposed as a libertine and a constant consort of prostitutes.' This then was the man who let rooms to Khalil Bey.

He, too, liked pictures - and also had distinct, not to say peculiar, tastes. His collection was put together according to an idiosyncratic - if all too human - paradigm. He would only buy pictures he found 'pleasing'. Or rather, of subjects he found 'pleasing'. He wouldn't, for example, buy any pictures of old men. So that was quite a few Rembrandts out.

But the Wallace Collection (ie the one in Manchester Square) was set up by Sir Richard Wallace. Generally said to be Lord Hertford's illegitimate son - but I'll be coming back to that general belief - this Wallace was also employed as his lordship's secretary. A secretary in the older sense, that is - as in secretary of state. He looked after Lord Hertford's business affairs, in particular what has been described as 'the finest private art collection in the world'.

Next up Family affairs, including those of ‘the old goat of Piccadilly’

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