Family Outings: The Wallace Collection, London

Rich pickings from the age of enlightenment
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The Independent Travel

The venue

After the hustle of Oxford Street, stepping through the doors of this late 18th-century, London town house is like entering another world. You first encounter a grand hall with huge chandeliers, a sweeping gold staircase and enormous oil paintings. But the 25 sumptuous rooms and galleries of Hertford House also hold one of the finest collections of art ever assembled by one family. Unsurpassed displays of 18th-century French paintings, furniture and porcelain are combined with superb Old Masters and a magnificent collection of arms and armour.

It will probably come as no surprise to visitors to discover that Sir Elton John is a big fan of the Wallace Collection. He is patron of its current exhibition - the biggest in the museum's history - featuring the sensual Rococo artist François Boucher (1703-1770). Sir Elton is quoted as saying that "Boucher's work is bold and sexy, just like me!"

The Wallace Collection was acquired principally in the 19th century by the third and fourth Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. It was bequeathed to the nation on the death of Lady Wallace in 1897 and was first opened to the public as a national museum in June 1900. Recent developments include the glassing over of the courtyard in 2000, which created new galleries, a restaurant and an education studio.

Something for children

On the face of it, rooms crammed with priceless objects that you are not allowed to touch may not seem brilliant for families, but the Wallace's programme of weekend and holiday activities is a great way of getting children aged five to 11 (and their parents) to look at exhibits in more detail. They get booked quickly so plan ahead.

Forthcoming family sessions, which involve touring the galleries before embarking on various creative activities, include a chance to have a go at watercolour painting (30 January), to find out about cherubs and angels (16 February) and to create a feast fit for Madame de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV (18 February).

In "Armour through the Ages" (15 February) children can take a rollicking ride through history with an opportunity to try on suits of armour. It's £6 for a half day, £12 for the full day and accompanying adults enter free. For more details and bookings call 020-7563 9551. The current "Boucher: Seductive Visions" exhibition in the Great Gallery (until 17 April) has a free family trail with questions to guide young visitors around plus "scratch and sniff" patches that smell of roses, and - not so pleasantly - farm animals. The semi-naked gods and goddesses and plump little cherubs that adorn the walls will, no doubt, give rise to a few sniggers.

Every year, the Wallace also puts on a free family day where visitors are transported back to 18th-century high society with costumed performers and activities throughout the galleries. This year's event is on Sunday 9 April.

Something for adults

This is a great place to go when 21st-century living gets too much. Hertford House has an immediate aura of calm and you can stroll around the galleries repeatedly and find something new each time. Just marvel at unusual exhibits from the ice-cream cooler that once belonged to Catherine the Great to a huge pair of chain mail underpants from 16th century Germany, complete with black silk bows. Apart from family events, the Wallace offers a packed programme of lectures, tours and art classes for adults (including some free places for the unemployed). In a special event on 2 February, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Sir Timothy Clifford will debate the motion: "Rococo Rules OK?"

Refreshments

With its menu of grilled quail salad (£11.50) and roast monkfish (£15.95 ), Café Bagatelle, which is situated in the glass-covered courtyard at the centre of the museum, is more of a restaurant than a café and gets pretty booked up during the week for business lunches, although they will do half-portions for children if requested and offer teas from 3pm (call 020-7563 9505 for more details). A better bet is to head for nearby Marylebone High Street which has an excellent array of cafes and restaurants, including a branch of Giraffe on Blandford Street (020-7935 2333). This excellent family-friendly chain does great smoothies and has a £4.95 children's menu. If, however, you want to bring your own snacks and drinks a few benches are available at the front of Hertford House.

Souvenirs

The Wallace Collection has an interesting array of gifts, from lavender-scented shoe stuffers to keep your footwear smelling sweet (£16.95 ) to silk knickers (£20.95) and "Johnny loves Rosie" hairbands and brooches (£8.50). Frans Hals's "The Laughing Cavalier" (which hangs in East Galleries 1) features heavily on puzzles (£5.50) and fridge magnets (£3.25). You can buy your little angels their own sets of pink or white feather wings (£11.95) or a kit to make their own visored helmets (basinet) out of cardboard (£2.99).

Admission and access

The Wallace Collection is open every day from 10am to 5pm (closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day). Admission is free, although collection boxes are dotted around the museum (a £2 donation is suggested). There is a charge for special attractions. The current Boucher exhibition is £6 for adults, with under 18s and concessions free. Wheelchair access leads to the side of the building and lift access goes to all floors. For more information or to book a disabled parking space, call 020-7563 9524. The Wallace also offers a programme of events for deaf and hard-of-hearing people which includes signed tours and a day of art activities by UK deaf artists on 26 February.

How to get there

The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN (020-7563 9500 www.wallacecollection.org). By tube: a five-minute walk from Bond Street on the Jubilee line. Buses: 2, 10, 12, 13, 30, 74, 82, 94, 113, 137, 274. By car: parking in the area (in the congestion charge zone) is usually a nightmare but if you're lucky you may be able to grab a two-hour "Pay and Display" bay in Manchester Square. There are also NCPs nearby.

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