Before taking you round Hertford House and showing you some of its treasures I should like to tell you how it is that we, you and I and all the world, come to possess these beautiful pictures, porcelain, armour, statuary, and many other things I shall not have space to mention. They were given to the nation, not one thing at a time by separate individuals, giving something really valuable and interesting in every single piece, but as a whole. Nothing has been added, or ever will be added, nothing has been taken away.
The beginnings of the collection are the pictures that belonged to the Marquis of Hertford. We see here a few portraits of his ancestors. These were painted by the notable artists of those days, just as Sargent to-day paints the Marlborough family, or any other of the great or rich who can afford to be his sitters. Thus we have a portrait by Clouet of the Earl of Hertford who lived in his time, the 16th century, with others by Reynolds who was commissioned by the second Marquis of Hertford to paint portraits of his two daughters Lady Frances Seymour, the Countess of Lincoln (33), and Lady Elizabeth Seymour (31), and by Bone, whose enamel of the Marquis of Hertford after Van Dyck (103) hangs among the miniatures.
I suppose, however, that the things in the collection that actually belonged to the Hertford family are few. Most of them were brought together from all parts of Europe, bought at great sales, when some priceless collections were put up to auction, or from private owners, or at old curio shops on the continent and in England. Many of them, no doubt, have not had those ups and downs of fortune which are so fascinating to think about. They have belonged to kings, and every step of their journey through life, from the time they first left the hands of the painter or craftsman, has been noted. They have passed from king to prince, from prince to noble, till they have found here a last resting place. Their wanderings, so far as we can prophesy, are over. I cannot but think that they are glad to find them-selves in such good company, with their home in a beautiful house where all the treasures speak of the faithful labour of great menlabour so well done that much of it is unique in the world. Perhaps the first thought that will come into your mind as you walk through Hertford House will be of the lasting value of work by artist and craftsman, who had the divine gift of genius, which, Carlyle tells us, is an infinite capacity for taking pains. I think it is something more, for the most painstaking artist in the world could only do mediocre things, unless he had that spark of something intangible, which, in spite of Carlyle’s definition, we call genius.
But I am straying away from telling you a little of the history of the men who gathered together this collection. The third Marquis of Hertford, who started it, was born as long ago as 1777 and died in 1842. Those of you who have read Thackeray’s ` Vanity Fair ‘ will remember the Marquis of Steyne, who plays a very ignoble part in the drama that surrounds Becky Sharp. Thackeray drew the portrait of this nobleman from the third Marquis. We must be glad that, with all his faults, he had a real love of beautiful things, and used his great wealth to secure them. He was a notable character in his day, and Disraeli also depicts him as Lord Monmouth in Coningsby. His son, the fourth Marquis, inherited his father’s artistic taste, and his wealth. The mansion in Manchester Square Gaunt Square, Thackeray calls itwas a dreary abode in those days. The square was hopelessly dull, and the great house which might have given it life was empty. A few servants, a porter at the gate, a maid or two for dusting the deserted rooms, had the place to themselves. No smoke went up from the chimneys, it was as a dwelling of the dead.
The fourth Marquis hated his gloomy residence and preferred to go abroad. In Paris, the city of light, he lived and died, he had a perfect horror of grimy old London, and never crossed the Channel if he could help it. It was thought at the time very unpatriotic of him to live away from his native country, but we cannot think so now. We know that he was gathering together the works that have made Hertford House a ` House Beautiful,’ and redeemed it to finer uses. What would Thackeray have thought could he see ` Gaunt House’ nowits doors open wide to all lovers of art.
The fourth Marquis of Hertford spent very little except on his collection ; he must have been very rich. Two of his favourite picturesI shall refer to them again when we come to look at the galleriesused to hang on either side of his bedstead, Mrs. Robinson as ` Perdita ‘ by Reynolds, and the portrait of Mademoiselle Sophie Arnould by Greuze.
When the Marquis died he left all that he could leave to his great friend, Richard Wallace, who had assisted him greatly in gathering together his collection. Richard Wallace went on adding to it, still living in Paris, where it was housed. At the time of the Franco-Prussian war, it was in great danger of destruction when the city was besieged. Wallace occupied himself in those stir-ring days by helping the country of his adoption, and did much for the assistance of the wounded soldiers, organising an ambulance and spending his money lavishly in their service. So we see that though he loved to collect sword and gun, lance and spear, and all the memorials of the pageant of war he remembered those who pay the price of the glory in wounds and death. He was so generous to the English poor of Paris at this time, that our Government made him a baronet.
When the war was over he brought his collection to England. It was not safe in Paris, that home of revolutions. The grim old family mansion was beautified and restored to receive it. He died in 1890, and left everything unconditionally to his wife. No doubt they had often talked over the future of the collection. Indeed, we know that before his death he had wished to leave it to the nation, but as he made certain conditions which were not agreed to, nothing came of the offer. And thus it was that the actual bequest was made by Lady Wallace, who died in 1897.
When you pass into the house, up the great staircase taken from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, at the top of the first flight you will see three busts. In the middle is the gracious head of Lady Wallace, with a short inscription above as to her gift, to the left Sir Richard, and to the right the fourth Marquis, so that before we begin our wanderings we can give a glance at those to whose taste, judgment, and generosity, our pleasure is due.
In walking through the galleries with you I shall not describe each room in full, and then pass on to another. They are so arranged that it would be difficult for you to keep up your interest if I did that. I shall tell you first of the pictures, then of the armour, the porcelain, the miniatures, the furniture, and so on in their turn.
I shall tell you of the lives of some of the painters,of their times, of the people they painted, sometimes of their sad end as they died, apparently forgotten. And then, turning from so tragic a thought, I shall take you on to the glorious future that has attended the good work they did, when all that is mean and unimportant has passed away. I should like to tell you, but I am afraid I shall not have space, something of the romance of a few of the pictures, of the artist getting a very small sum for his canvas, of its changing hands for even less, and then, because the best work is always recognised in the end, of its being competed for by those who possessed the rare combination of wisdom and wealth.
Pictures may be the record of a passing moment, but they are much more as well. By the gift of imagination, a gift to which we owe our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, we must try to make them live again. We must imagine what the people were saying when they passed along the corridorsas we see them passingto what unknown shores the ships sailed, to what destinies the boys and girlswhom we see as childrengrew up.. The pictures must tell us their story, as they surely will, if we only know how to ask them.
I shall not dwell much on the technical side of art. If you come to paint yourselves you will learn as you pass through the schools to appreciate colour and brush-work, composition, and draughtsmanship. I shall refer to certain of these qualities that one painter possesses in a supreme degree above his fellows. I want all boys and girls to care for Hertford House, not only those who already know something of painting, who hope in the future to know more, and perhaps to have the good fortune to earn their living by it. If I thought of them only I should leave the story of this collection a closed book to many of you. Hertford House would still be a place to which you were brought rather reluctantly on a Saturday half-holiday, and that you didn’t particularly enjoy. If you had had your own way, you would rather have stopped at Madame Tussaud’s and had a much j oilier afternoon.
You will always enjoy this great collection, if you will only bring your imagination with you when you visit it, and you will find pleasure you never expected in wandering through the rooms. ` Above all,’ as someone once said, ` let us see visions, visions of colour and light, of green fields and broad rivers, of palaces laid with fair colours, of gardens where a place is found for rosemary and rue.’