#84 Wallace Collection and #83 Afternoon Tea at the Wallace Restaurant
I didn’t even know the Wallace Collection was a thing in the world; but there it is, a huge town house – mansion, really – stuffed to the gills with jawdropping armour and art collections, sitting quietly behind Selfridges. It’s nearer to Bond Street tube than JD Sports is, and yet it feels almost secret. Did you know they’ve got ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ here, for example? Just another example of the way London hides its greatest treasures in plain sight – a sort of mixture of modesty and snobbery that’s so very British.
The Wallace Collection started life as a private hoard by the Marquesses of Hertford, and was bequeathed to the country in 1900. Thanks to its grandly domestic setting, exploring the collection feels like you’ve been invited to a country house weekend and have gone for a quick snoop. Herford House is as much an exhibit as the art is. Even though this has been a state-owned collection for over a century, its still feels as though an aristocratic host is about to greet you. You can almost feel dead butlers looking down their invisible noses at you.
While Mrs Brown admired the Titians, Rembrandts, and piles of Cannalettos upstairs, as well as more 18-century French furniture than you can shake a fan at, I was gawping at the gallery of medieval and Renaissance armour on the ground floor. Everything was terrifically fun until we sat down in the immense central courtyard for afternoon tea at the little embedded Peyton and Burn restaurant. And then all the fun just stopped, like that.
Despite having booked, and numerous tables being free, we were made to wait at least twenty minutes with little explanation. We had to flag someone down just to get a menu; and they got our order wrong. This didn’t seem to be because of understaffing, just old-fashioned idiocy. The tea itself was nothing to write home to your dowager duchess about, either; finger sandwiches which were squished together and needed to be peeled apart, and warm scones served at the start, so they were cold when we ate them.
Afternoon tea is a sort of hilarious bet you make with a restaurant or hotel. “Look how much we charge you for tea and sandwiches!” they say jovially. “I bet it’s not worth that much,” you reply (because you’ve been burned before). “Challenge accepted!” says the restaurant stroke hotel, and gives you its best shot. No sane person orders afternoon tea. It’s nuts. That’s the gag. The whole point of afternoon tea is to show you how special the establishment can make an ordinary meal. Not here, though. It really was just tea, sandwiches and cake, grudgingly served. Shame.