Art (and water) for everyone!

Hertford House, London home of the Wallace Collection ( © Charlotte Fielding Photography)

Spring and Summer in London in the 18th century were a whirl of social events and entertainments. One of the most important places to see and be seen? The elegant Hertford House in Manchester Square which was the London home of the Marquises of Hertford. From the 18th century, the family would have lived there during the London season. When they were in residence the place would have hummed with the hustle and bustle of visitors, of servants and of family.

Today it’s still as lively. However, it’s now the home of the famous Wallace Collection. In June they are celebrating the 200th anniversary of their founder Richard Wallace with the opening of a new, and impressive exhibition space. Richard Wallace was a truly fascinating man with an interesting legacy on both sides of the English Channel.

Sir Richard Wallace (detail; c. 1871), Richard Dighton © The Wallace Collection.

He was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquis of Hertford, also Richard Wallace (b.1800 d.1870) and for the first part of his life, lived in Paris rather than within the family home. However, when Richard’s father died, he left his impressive art collection to his illegitimate son. In 1872, this second Richard returned from Paris to Hertford House and to his father’s collection. Over the following years, he added to the collection with purchases of his own and converted the first floor of the house into gallery space. Hertford House steadily adapted to show-off its greatest asset, its fine art and furniture collection.

The Wallace Collection as it looks today

Rather than cloistering the collection away for only the family’s enjoyment, Sir Richard Wallace thought it important that the public had access to the collection. During the years when he was converting the house, much of the collection was exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum where it was a popular sensation, visited by many thousands of people. When Richard died, his wife bequeathed the house and its collection to the nation. On the 22nd June, 1900 the collection opened as a public museum. Known now as The Wallace Collection, the house and its contents still stand pride of place in Manchester Square. This philanthropic gesture has meant that the outstanding collection can be admired by anyone visiting the capital and the house still buzzes with visitors.

The Wallace family might be most famous for their collection in the UK, but in France their legacy is somewhat different. Richard Wallace did not forget the country that had looked after him in his young years. Wallace is better known to our Parisian neighbours for his public water fountains, known as ‘Wallace Fountains’.

One of Wallace’s famous fountains in Paris

In September 1870, Prussian forces laid siege to the Paris. The siege lasted until January of the following year. After which point, the city was controlled by a radical socialist and revolutionary government known as the Paris commune. The social upheaval and unrest did vast amounts of damage to the city’s infrastructure, including the aqueducts which bought clean water to many of the citizens. As a result, many of the poor had to pay for their water and the price of water had gone up significantly. Moreover, most of the water carted about by vendors was drawn from the Seine river and was thus extremely dirty. All the waste water from the streets and many of the sewers drained directly into the river. It was therefore safer to drink beer or other alcoholic beverages which were almost as cheap as water.

Wallace was concerned about the poor descending into alcoholism, and so he began to work with sculptor, Charles-Auguste Lebourg to design new public drinking fountains which would be dotted around the city. These would bring fresh, clean water to the population, which they could consume at no cost. While the city of Paris funded some of the project, it was mostly financed by Wallace himself. He was eventually awarded the Legion D’Honneur for his charitable donations to the needy of Paris. It is estimated that he gave at least 2.5 million francs to the poor of the city, this would be about £18 million today.

Wallace made all the original designs for the fountains. Lebourg ensured that they would be fully functional and added some aesthetic flourishes. Wrought in cast-iron, it was important to Wallace that the fountains were both beautiful and practical; works of art and functional objects. The fountains are now icons synonymous with the city itself, integral to the famous Parisian aesthetic. In the months of March to November you can still drink freely from them. Versions of the fountain can now be found in cities all around the world, indeed a version of the largest design now stands in the courtyard of Hertford House in Manchester Square.

Through his donations to the people of both France and England, Wallace emphasized how important it is that art should be available to everyone, not just for an elite. Like so many great collectors, Wallace can be remembered for the ways in which his aesthetic endeavours combined with his philanthropic ones.

The Wallace Collection is free to visit year-round and you’ll be able to learn more about other members of the Wallace family and their outstanding and vast collection using the SMARTIFY app. You’ll also be able to see the famous fountain.