London has world-class museums, but one of them isn't as well-known as it should be: The Wallace Collection. There's no entrance fee, you can see all of it in a morning or afternoon, and it won't leave you feeling overwhelmed like The British Museum or the National Gallery might. Housed in a historic mansion, The Wallace offers two dozen splendid galleries of 18th century paintings, French furniture, and porcelain along with Old Masters, armor and more.
I was there last summer with American students on a fantastic, enlightening tour that was also seductive because I knew I had to return on my own. I was called back for four reasons and I made sure I arrived right after lunch so that the museum would be close to empty and I wouldn't feel impinged on by crowds.
First I sat opposite Rembrandt's soulful portrait of his son Titus, communing with that calm face for a good ten minutes alone.
Then I found the remarkable Van Dyke of dreamy-eyed Paris who seems to be contemplating the choice he has to make among the three beautiful unseen goddesses.
Once again, I was lucky enough to have time to contemplate color and line in the extraordinary painting without anyone crowding around me or getting between me and the painting.
I'd always admired Poussin's "A Dance to the Music of Time" on book covers and in art books, but here it was right in front of me, and I could spend as much of my own time that day as I wanted, contemplating its mysterious cool beauty. It was so vivid I could almost hear music and feel the stamp of feet.
There's much more to see at the Wallace than these three canvases--like a room filled with furniture owned by Marie Antoinette--but I spent easily an hour at the end of my second visit doing something just as wonderful as enjoying the art. And to my mind, just as artistic.
The Wallace boasts a restaurant that isn't a work of art per se, but feels like one: a beautiful inner courtyard where you can have high tea or a kir royale or dessert or the meal of your choice and reflect on what you've seen and what it means to you. It's a space so calm, hushed, and beguiling you could almost be on a quiet sandy beach at sunset with the breeze coming up..... Service was impeccable, the food, superb.
So if you're in London, don't miss The Wallace Collection. But be warned: like me, you might want to go back, so don't save it for the end of your trip.
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