The Great and the Good
Lavender’s Blue on a tour of The Wallace Collection with John O’Connell founder and director of John J O’Connell Architects. Sssh! This Dublin based international practice is responsible for the restoration, rejuvenation and reinvigoration of the galleries which together form central London’s best kept cultural secret. Despite being a Sevres urn’s throw from Oxford Street, The Wallace Collection at Hertford House radiates an air of calm and civility. Perhaps it’s the sylvan setting of Manchester Square. Or maybe the muted acoustics of the glazed courtyard restaurant. There’s nothing subdued though about the interiors of Hertford House. A blaze of historically correct colour awaits. Quiet! The latest room to sparkle once more is the Great Gallery. Mr JJ O’Connell speaketh:
“In principle, each room is enhanced to stress the domestic or private mansion aspect of the main house. For example interconnecting doors between rooms have been reinstated and indeed in the Study we have introduced an entirely new false door to visually balance the existing doorway on the other side of the fireplace. Our main purpose is to provide an augmented setting for the Collection. It is not about re-creating rooms as they were, no, but rather re-presenting them for today’s visitors and scholars. The colour of the Dining Garden Hall is a quieter silver grey. You can’t have hectic colours all the time!” Listen up! Chief sparkler takes a breath:
“This is the size of a city block, the Great Gallery, so it’s an extraordinary beautiful room and what we’ve done is gone and looked at the archived photograph of the room as it was with this lovely laylight which had to be abolished at a certain moment and now with modern technology we can again have this great laylight. This is where you have studio glazing at the top of the roof and it in turn lets light down onto this magnificent laylight so in other words it has a huge amount of natural light falling into the room.
It’s not wallpaper on the walls. It’s the most wonderful possible fabric, silk, and it’s not just damask, it’s a brocatelle, so it’s got even more silk in it! I think that to, as it were, bring the gallery forward into the modern age, you need to get the best possible conditions: lighting, climate control, security, fire safety compliance, decorative effects, so you can bring all of that into this great space. You could only do that if you go right back and lift the roof off because that’s what happened here. You see, the entire roof was taken off and what we have here is a whole new room within the gallery space because this has the technology almost of a railway terminal, when you see the supporting structure, and yet inside it is so beautiful.
Architectural features must do at least three jobs. The oculi in the latticed cast plasterwork punch through the cove: vertical stop, start, stop, start, all the way round the room. They also let more light into the room and act as the return path for the air conditioning. Reinstating wainscoting has curatorial importance. The paintings come to life against coloured fabric above the dado rail and the light coloured wainscot is appropriate as a backdrop to furniture. The gilt fillet of the wainscot is more pronounced than in the preceding galleries. If it was too small it would look titchy; if it was too over the top it would look bonkers. The wainscot must flow along. The Great Gallery enshrines everything we have learned during our 19 years working at The Collection. Everything bar the floor is new.
“I think first of all The Wallace Collection is so multifaceted, the armour, then of course furniture, particularly Boulle, as an architect we love Boulle furniture, this is what we really want! The great thing is here the parameters are set. You can move everything but you cannot acquire and you cannot dispose which is marvellous, so it’s like a game of chess all the time. Everything is of equal importance. The placement of objects is just so important.” Quite so.