Sir Richard Wallace and His Fountains

The story of the Wallace Fountains is remarkable. The true motivation of Sir Richard Wallace, the Englishman who lived most of his life in Paris and who donated funds in the second half of the nineteenth century to bring free, clean drinking water to Parisians, remains debatable. Was it simple altruism? Could it be guilt over the vast wealth he inherited? As an illegitimate child, did Richard Wallace seek legitimacy through his philanthropy? Was he trying to atone for the sins of his miserly father? Or, perhaps his rationale was simply a strong desire to wipe out public and private drunkenness among the poor, something he witnessed too often during the Paris siege of the Franco-Prussian War from 1870-71 and the Commune era that immediately followed. Whatever his motivation, the world can thank him. Through his focused efforts to combine practical design with extraordinary beauty and allegorical meaning, he created works of art that continuously serve the public by delivering clean drinking water to the population. He also gave Paris one of its most lasting and beloved iconic symbols.
Wallace Fountains are public, drinking water sources primarily located throughout Paris, although replicas exist at various locations worldwide. The first 50 were installed in Paris beginning in 1872. They appear in the form of cast-iron sculptures, most of which are painted a dark green to blend in with the Parisian streetscape. The grand model fountain stands almost nine feet tall and weighs more than 1,300 pounds.

Originally, Sir Richard Wallace funded 40 free-standing, grand model fountains and ten wall mounted fountains, all placed at strategic locations. More of the grand model fountains were added when they proved to be very popular and practical, and as the Paris population expanded.  According to British newspaper accounts and French historical records, Wallace funded an additional ten fountains in 1876 and ten more in 1879.1

Two newer models were designed later, a colonnade model and a petit model, making a total of four styles called Wallace fountains, although only the original grand model and the wall applied model were Wallace conceptions. Today, there are 106 public grand model Wallace fountains in Paris, all of which dispense safe drinking water. In addition, one original wall model and two colonnade model fountains are still in existence and are included in the guided walks found on this website.

The grand model fountains were roughly designed by Richard Wallace himself.  He drew sketches of the fountains he envisioned, incorporating in the drawings his desire for them to be useful, beautiful and symbolic. Then, Wallace hired his personal acquaintance, Charles-Auguste Lebourg, a highly regarded sculptor from Nantes.  Lebourg was asked to improve the sketches and turn the practical drinking fountains into true works of art.

Atlas Municipal des Eaux
de la Ville de Paris, 1893.
Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris
The fountains were welcomed by Parisians. The siege and artillery bombing of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, as well as the destruction of the Commune episode that followed, devastated the city and destroyed many aqueducts and other sources of clean water. The price of potable water became very expensive. As a result, most poor people had difficulty obtaining and paying for water that was safe to consume. Moreover, most of the water sold by vendors and distributed on carts to the poor was drawn from the Seine River. That water was certainly contaminated, because at the time all the waste water from the streets and many of the sewers drained directly into the river. It seemed less risky to drink alcoholic beverages, which were often cheaper than the price of unsafe water. Given the choice, the lower classes were most apt to hydrate with beer or wine.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover (Suzanne Valadon), 1887-1889
Oil on canvas; 47 x 55.3 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum,
Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906, 1951.63
Photo: Imaging Department (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

Drunkenness and alcoholism were rampant among the poor and working-class population, as accurately described in Emile Zola’s masterful historical novel, L’Assommoir, published in 1877. Public intoxication was exacerbated during the 1870 siege of Paris when idle National Guard members, assigned to defend the city, passed the time drinking in local bars, cafes and bistros.2 Food supplies became scarce and the population was starving, but wine always seemed to be available. A huge cache of wine was warehoused within the city walls at the wine and spirit depots at Bercy. More than 1,600,000 hectolitres of ordinary, cheap wine were in the cellars prompting a wine agent to remark, “There is no fear of….having to drink water for some time.”3
Immediately following the end of the siege, civil unrest in Paris lead to another uprising and the establishment of the Commune. It wasn’t long before civil war took place, and it was a bloody, destructive, shameful period in French history. Little wonder the citizens turned to drink, especially the underclass, who suffered the most from these two episodes.

Wallace remained in Paris during the siege and the Commune period distributing his own funds for field hospitals, food aid, fuel and clothing for its poorest citizens. He saw firsthand the devastating effects of consuming alcohol when clean water was not accessible. In poor neighborhoods, Wallace must have witnessed “little ones, between two and three years of age, being fed on bread soaked in wine, and suffering from various ailments in consequence.”4

Sir Richard and others considered it a moral duty to keep the less privileged from falling into alcoholism simply because they had nothing else safe to drink. In the name of temperance, and from a sincere desire to use philanthropy for the common good, Wallace set about to commission the drinking fountains and deliver safe water to all.

Sir Richard Wallace (seated center) and other members
of the British Charitable Fund after the Siege of
Paris. By Adolphe, albumen print, 10 March 1871. NPG x8892
© National Portrait Gallery, London.
Today, clean water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene is easily accessible to most Parisians and is delivered by Eau de Paris, a public water services company that reports to the city of Paris government. Including the Wallace Fountains, Eau de Paris offers access to free, quality water at more than 1,200 water points throughout the city.

Wallace Fountains of Paris are used by everyone, rich and poor alike, and it is not uncommon to see people of every station in life refilling water bottles at the fountains or cupping their hands to take a drink. Recently, Eau de Paris undertook a public service campaign to encourage use of all public drinking fountains and thus reduce the number of single-use plastic water bottles that harm the environment.

Wallace Fountains exemplify Sir Richard’s philosophy of giving a hand to those with an essential human need, in this case access to life-sustaining, safe drinking water.

His fountains also beautify Paris in a typical Parisian way – with style, artistry, symbolism, a nod to the past and a sense of monumentality.

From his earliest conception to the final design, Richard Wallace envisioned the fountains to be beautiful, as well as useful. Wallace and his father, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, were art lovers and art collectors. When the Marquess died, he left his art collection and a vast amount of wealth to his unacknowledged, illegitimate son, Richard Wallace. Their combined collection included furniture, sculpture, armor, medieval treasures and Renaissance works of art, as well as paintings from periods spanning several centuries.   To prevent the collection from being destroyed during frequent civil unrest in the city, Wallace had it secretly shipped to England. Reflecting on his interest in the Renaissance art, Wallace also wanted the water fountains to be allegorical and to stand as symbolic reminders for users to adopt the best virtues of mankind.


Along with his conceptual sketches, Wallace also provided Charles-Auguste Lebourg with specifications and requirements for the design and construction of the fountains. His exacting guidelines referenced size, form, materials and cost. He specified the fountains must be “tall enough to be seen from a distance, but not so tall as to destroy the harmony of the surrounding landscape.” Their form must be “both practical to use and pleasing to the eye.” Their materials must be “resistant to the elements, easy to shape and simple to maintain.” Finally, cost was a major factor. Wallace wanted them to be “affordable enough to allow the installation of dozens.” 5

The fountains are made from cast-iron, a suitable material that fit Wallace’s criteria and was readily available at the time. Wallace and Lebourg originally created two models, a large standing model and a wall mounted model. Only one wall mounted Wallace Fountain remains in existence in Paris. It has been restored and can be found in the 5th arrondissement.

For the large, grand model, Lebourg created four caryatids, based on Wallace’s concept and possibly inspired by Jean Goujon’s caryatids located in the Salle des Caryatides at the Louvre. A caryatid is a classic Greco-Roman female figure used as a column or pillar to support an entablature or dome on her head or raised hands.

The four Wallace caryatids, holding up the dome of the fountain, represent four virtues – kindness, simplicity, charity and sobriety. Each figure is different and can be distinguished by the way each bends her knees and by how each tunic is draped. However, which caryatid is which virtue is not apparent to the viewer. Some believe the four figures also represent the four seasons and the passage of time and have identified them as follows: Kindness – left knee bent, knees covered, Winter; Simplicity – right knee bent, knee uncovered, Spring; Sobriety – right knee bent, knees covered, Autumn; Charity – left knee bent, knee uncovered, Summer.

In addition to being beautiful, the practical design, with a small steady stream of water flowing continuously from the top of the dome into an elevated basin, insured the purity of the water and kept stray dogs from drinking from the fountain. The close alignment of the caryatids also prevented horses from using it as a watering trough.
Two tin cups were attached to the fountains by chains linked to loops near the feet of the caryatids. By custom, the cups were usually left submerged in the basin to be rinsed by the continuously flowing water stream, and thus kept as hygienic as possible. In 1952, the common drinking cups were removed by order of the Council of Health.
In 2017, Eau de Paris began experimenting with a few Wallace fountains. A small, stainless-steel push button was engineered into five fountains. Using the push button, the fountain automatically dispenses 40-50 cl of water. It remains dry when not in use. The test will determine if instituting this system of water on demand and stopping the continuous water stream from the top of the dome can prevent water waste, ensure higher quality drinking water and help preserve the historic fountains by curtailing damage from rust and corrosion caused by splashing water.

The first Wallace fountains were produced by the Val d’Osne foundry. The grand fountain models were assembled from more than 80 pieces. The company owner, Jean Pierre Victor André, invented the ornamental cast iron process and he established a successful, award winning art foundry in 1835. The foundry workshop was set up in Val d’Osne in the Haute Marne region, but the company’s main office and showroom was located at 58 Boulevard Voltaire in Paris. Many of the fountains still operating have the Val d’Osne marking. Later, the fountains were produced by GHM Sommevoire, a competing company that bought the Val d’Osne foundry in 1931 and is still in operation.

The earliest fountains carry two markings on the top of the eight-sided base pedestal. On one side is the name of the sculptor, CH. LEBOURG SC, with the year 1872, on the opposite side is the name of the foundry, VAL D’OSNE. This is a way to distinguish the early fountains or their parts from the later replicas produced by GHM. The GHM markings are found at the very bottom of the fountain base.

The city waterworks department decided the locations for the fountains donated by Wallace. The task fell primarily to Eugène Belgrand, Director of Water and Sewers of Paris. Belgrand was an extraordinary hydraulic engineer. He was appointed to his position as head of the waterworks by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Baron Haussmann was the master planner Napoleon III put in charge of rebuilding the city.

Belgrand’s new sewer system and aqueducts that brought fresh spring water to Paris were such a marvel they drew attention from around the world. His sewer system became a must-see attraction for tourists, government officials and royalty visiting Paris.
The selection of the dark green color that most of the fountains are painted goes back to Napoleon III and his desire to bring nature to the city. Painted green, the fountains, along with the classic newsstands, Morris columns and other street furniture, would reflect nature and easily blend in with the manmade nature parks, landscaped squares and tree-lined streets and boulevards of his remade city.

While Wallace covered the expense to design and manufacture the first 50 fountains, as well as at least 20 additional fountains, this was a public-private partnership. The city of Paris provided the plumbing and installation. The total cost was estimated to be about 1,000 francs for each grand model and 450 francs for each wall mounted model.6

Again, the location of each fountain was left to the city of Paris, which was responsible for the water supply and delivery system. The objective was to place the fountains where they could provide the most access and be harmoniously integrated into the environment. Most, but not all, were placed in small public squares or at the intersection of two or more prominent roads.
By Georges Lafosse published in Le Trombinoscope. Image: Wikipedia

The first fountain, installed in July 1872, was placed on Boulevard de la Villette, but it is no longer there. The initial fountains proved to be so useful and popular the city of Paris, with generous support from Richard Wallace, soon authorized the installation of several additional grand model fountains. Sir Richard Wallace and his fountains were widely publicized and even the subject of a political cartoon. The Atlas Municipal des Eaux de la Ville de Paris, published in 1893 and available to view at the Library of the History of City of Paris, shows the locations of 63 grand model and eight wall model Wallace fountains.

Of the 106 grand model fountains currently present in Paris, all function and distribute potable water. Many have been moved from their original locations or added as the city underwent redevelopment over the last 150 years. It is not unreasonable to assume some will be moved or more might be added in the future.

The fountains operate from mid-March to late fall. Most are shut off during the winter to prevent the risk of freezing and damage to the internal plumbing. Eau de Paris is responsible for regular maintenance and repainting. One or two undergo complete restoration every year. A few fountains, mostly in the 13th arrondissement, go against tradition and are painted a different color than the standard dark green.

Sir Richard Wallace is best known in the United Kingdom for his extraordinary art collection donated to the British people. The Wallace Collection is available for public viewing at his former residence in London. In Paris, he is remembered for aiding the poor and for his generous, steadfast  commitment to the common good as symbolized by the iconic drinking fountains that carry his name.

Richard Wallace died in Paris on July 20, 1890 at his home, Château Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne. He was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the Hertford-Wallace family tomb.

Footnote References

1. Shields Daily Gazette, March 20, 1879 and Dundee Courier, August 19, 1876.
2. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and The Commune 1870-71, Alistair Horne, Penguin Books, p.95.
3. An Englishman in Paris, Vol. II, The Empire, anonymously published and attributed to Sir Richard Wallace, later believed to be the work of journalist Albert Dresden Vandam, D. Appelton & Company, 3rd edition, p. 266.
4. Ibid. p. 306.
5. Wikipedia, Wallace Fountains.
6. L’Illustration, Journal Universel, vol. LX, no.1538, page 103.

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