My lovely Polish friend and neighbour Danuta works as a guide at the Wallace Collection. She has looked at more pre-modern art than anyone I have ever known. Knows more, too, I should think. She spent six hours studying paintings in one room at the Prado one day last year. I’ve never been to a gallery with more great paintings in it than the Prado. It is full of extraordinary work, but much of it is of crucifixions, martyrdom, death. Castilian gloom at its gloomiest. A walk in Springtime it isn’t. I asked her to show me where The Swing, by Jean Honoré-Fragonard, hangs. It’s not the first time I’ve been to the gallery, but it has been restored recently and much of the work has been moved around. Danuta looked at me as if I’ve asked for something dangerous. She lowered her eyes, she lowered her voice. ‘Frivol,’ she muttered darkly, under her breath. It was a warning to keep away. It was a warning I did not heed.
Frivol, indeed. The serious business of pleasure is here. A young woman on a swing is being pushed by an older man while a younger one, hidden, looks up her skirt. Her shoe flies, saucily, through the air. Cupids look on from the undergrowth. Summer, flirting, sex, a marriage of finance, maybe, and its escape are present. It is as light as apple blossom and makes me as happy. It is surrounded by other masterpieces of the Rococo, although I don’t love any as I love The Swing.
Danuta gave me a personalised tour. In another room is the Laughing Cavalier, painted by Frans Hals. He isn’t laughing but is amused by something that might be you. He’s got swagger, he’s sexy. There’s a beautiful painting of Titus, Rembrandt’s only son to have survived into adulthood. There are other great Dutch paintings both grand, of flowers or food, and of quiet domestic scenes, all threaded with symbolism. There is a magnificent room full of paintings of Venice by Canaletto. And I love the portraits by Joshua Reynolds. There are cabinets where you have to lift a leather veil to see the exquisite miniatures below protected from the light. Against every wall are credenzas and desks intricately gilded and decorated. Heavy decorative objects – clocks and vases, sculptures of classical gods sit on the furniture.
Downstairs are paintings from the late nineteenth century, but they look leaden next to the earlier work. Unsubtle, unserious, unfun. There are rooms of armour and weaponry. They sit heavily against the paintings. My friend said it took her six years before she could enjoy them. But look closely and the craftsmanship is intricate and beautiful. Muskets are covered in minute patterns and figures, armour as decorated as a wedding cake. The gallery is rarely crowded. You can walk round in quiet comfort, at your own pace. You’ll never be jostled. And that’s why I love the Wallace Collection.
The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN. Admission free