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In London: art beyond the Tate

Galleries with ambience and intimacy beckon visitors after they've hit the popular museum of modern art

By Susan JaquesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2002



Like eager sardines, my sister and I spilled out of the elevator at the hugely popular Tate Modern, joined by schools of fellow modern-art lovers. Rather than face daunting lines at the cafe, we had to split a bag of chocolate-covered raisins for lunch.

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Our battle through the throngs at the Tate had left us famished – both for a sandwich and a more relaxed way to experience the city's art. Fortunately, we discovered a collection of smaller, intimate museums whose ambience inspires, rather than overwhelms. Each, in its own way, is a quiet triumph. Their buildings are rich in history. Several offer stylish new restaurants where one can refuel during lengthy picture-gazing sessions. Here are our favorites:

The Wallace Collection

In 1797, when the second Marquess of Hertford acquired Hertford House, the property looked upon the woodsy outskirts of London, an area prized for duck hunting. Today, bargains have replaced ducks along now-busy Oxford Street. From Selfridges department store, it's a five-minute walk to the elegant brick Hertford House, home to the Wallace Collection, which is considered one of the greatest private art collections ever assembled.

The collection comes as a result of passionate collecting by five generations of one of England's wealthiest families, descendants of Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of England from 1547 to 1549.

At the request of Richard Wallace, the fourth marquess's illegitimate son, knighted by Queen Victoria, his widow bequeathed Hertford House to the nation a century ago, with the stipulation that nothing in the mansion would be added or removed.

The Lords Hertford were Francophiles. Stepping inside Hertford House is like stepping inside a chateau, replete with 17th- and 18th-century French paintings, gold boxes, Sèvres porcelain vases, and Boulle marquetry furniture of engraved brass on tortoiseshell. Visitors will recognize several of the most famous paintings: Rembrandt's "The Artist's Son Titus," Frans Hals's "The Laughing Cavalier," and Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "The Swing."

Alongside its famous paintings, the Wallace Collection also includes stunning medieval and renaissance objets d'art and one of the world's great collections of European and Oriental armory. This year, a selection of the museum's finest "princely" armor will be showcased in a special exhibition, "Gold, Silver and Steel: The Fine Art of Renaissance Armour Masterpieces" (June 20 to Sept. 22).

The Wallace Collection reopened in summer 2000 after a major renovation that increased exhibits by a third. The new Café Bagatelle is located in Rick Mather's courtyard sculpture garden, where a dramatic glass roof provides an airy setting for morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon tea. Fittingly, bronze fountains from Sir Richard's Chateau de Bagatelle in Paris have been reinstalled.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

On a summer afternoon two years ago, an elderly gentleman walked into the Dulwich Picture Gallery, handed a security guard a small brown paper parcel, and vanished. After an initial bomb scare, gallery curators were thrilled to discover a trio of 17th-century portrait miniatures nestled within a silk-lined box. After a visit here, it's easy to see why the anonymous donor chose Dulwich as the beneficiary of his treasures.

Called "the most beautiful small art gallery in the world" by the Daily Telegraph, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is an easy 12-minute train ride from Victoria Station. Its 17th- and 18th-century old masters were originally intended for the king of Poland. Like the Marquesses of Hertford, art dealers Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois acquired paintings from aristocrats liquidating art during the French Revolution. But before the works could get to Poland, the country was partitioned by Russia, leaving the dealers with a homeless royal collection.

Bourgeois commissioned Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, to build England's first public art gallery, a building worthy of his art. Soane's design included a dramatic mausoleum for the museum founders located in the center of the gallery. His use of natural daylight and simple arched spaces later inspired contemporary museum architects, including Richard Meier of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Curators like to describe the gallery's organization in gastronomic terms. Paintings from the beer-drinking or hard-cheese countries – Holland, Germany, and England – are hung in the south; works from the wine-drinking or soft-cheese countries – Italy, Spain, and France – are hung in the north. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Murillo, Poussin, Rubens, Watteau, and Gainsborough are all represented.

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