Paris is a city famous for fountains—many huge, grand and beautiful—but these smaller fountains are unusual and have become iconic of the city. Why are these Wallace Fountains especially interesting? Well, partly because they provide the city with clean drinking water, but also because of how they were built and who provided the funding: not a French person even but a British transplant to the city.
They are named after the English philanthropist—Sir Richard Wallace—who conceived and financed them. Designed by Charles-Auguste Lebourg, they are in the form of green cast-iron caryatids in a circle with water coming up in the middle. They are dotted around the city, mainly along the most-frequented sidewalks and park areas and have become as much a symbol of the city as the Eiffel Tower. A great aesthetic success, they are recognized worldwide as one of the symbols of Paris. Curiously, however, in spite of being a respected integral part of the Parisian landscape, they are not classified as “historic monuments”.
The water is fine to drink—I’ve seen police filling their water bottles, school kids slurping, and old Parisiennes, loaded with shopping bags, lean and fill their cups.
Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890) was raised in Paris by his grandmother. He inherited a large fortune from his father in August 1870, plus an apartment in Paris and the chateau of Bagatelle. He was devoted to Paris and remained in his Parisian villa even when the city was besieged during the Franco-Prussian War, and helped the city with many charitable works. For example, he founded a hospital, where he personally welcomed victims of the bombings and distributed supplies, and bought ambulances. Even though he returned to London in 1872, he remained faithful to his adopted nation, and returned to France in 1887, and is buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Of his many contributions to Parisian life, probably the best known today are the fountains that he mainly paid for and that bear his name.
Many aqueducts had been destroyed during the siege of Paris, and the price of water, already higher than normal, went up considerably. Because of this, most of the poor had to pay for water, and were tempted to just drink cheaper alcohol, leading to a big alcoholism problem. So, the aim of the fountains was to allow people of modest means to have access to drinking water. Even today, when water and hygiene are not a problem for most Parisians, these fountains are often the only sources of free water for the homeless.
So the fountains accomplished Wallace’s philosophy of lending a hand to those in need, but they have also added to the beauty of Paris.
Richard Wallace designed the fountains himself and wanted them to be beautiful as well as useful. The fountains had to meet several strict guidelines: (source, Wikipedia/Wallace Fountains)
“Height: They had to be tall enough to be seen from afar but not so tall as to destroy the harmony of the surrounding landscape.
Form: Both practical to use and pleasing to the eye.
Price: Affordable enough to allow the installation of dozens.
Materials: Resistant to the elements, easy to shape, and simple to maintain.”
The Paris city government decided on the locations of the fountains, most in squares or at the intersection of two roads, to make them easily available to the public. City government also decided on the color and material: dark green to blend in with the trees and parks; and cast iron, which was inexpensive, strong, easy to mold, and a popular material at the time. Wallace conceived four different models, varying in height and motif, and asked Charles-Auguste Lebourg, a sculptor from Nantes whom he already knew, to complete the project.
For the large model, which became the most popular, Lebourg created four caryatids representing kindness, simplicity, charity, and sobriety. Each one is different, by the way she bends her knees and by where her tunic is tucked into her blouse. All are considered works of art today.
These days, there are 67 of the large models, 9 small model fountains, 2 Colonnaded fountains, and one applied model. Most of these fountains still present in the city still work, from 15 March to 15 November. They are turned off in winter because of the risk of freezing affecting the pipes etc. They are repainted every two years and so the green color is always bright and shiny.
Other Wallace fountain are in Nantes, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Toulon and Pau, in France.
We find them outside of France too, in countries such as Switzerland, Canada, UK, Brazil, Mozambique and Spain, for example.