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The Wallace fountains – a sip of history

An integral part of the city’s charm today, the Wallace Fountains have become a world-renowned landmark of the French capital. Those public drinking fountains scattered throughout Paris are recognized as one of its most iconic symbols. Named after the Englishman Sir Richard Wallace, who financed their construction, the small cast-iron sculptures became a huge aesthetic success. Distinctive and picturesque, they established themselves as an integral part of the Parisian cityscape and are of the same importance as the street urchins of Montmartre, and even, the Eiffel Tower! For more than a century, these monuments have never suffered criticism – an unforeseeable practice for a city like Paris, whose residents are quoted for their credo: “J’aime rien, je suis Parisien”

The Wallace – an eternal Parisian classic. Photo: Kalin Petrov

The meaning:       “Wallace” =   a Wallace fountain

The history: 

There are 77 Wallace fountains still present in Paris, most of which function in delivering delicious drinking water, which were donated to the city by Sir Richard Wallace, a wealthy English aristocrat and philanthropist, after the upheaval of the Paris commune in 1875, when numerous aqueducts and sources of drinking water were destroyed and many of the poor ended up having to pay for water. Sir Wallace believed that everyone had the right to quench their thirst for free and also hoped that his deed would be instrumental in the fight against alcoholism. The first fountain was opened in 1875.

People drinking from a Wallace fountain during Bastille Day celebrations in 1911. Photo: Wikipedia

The man:

Sir Richard Wallace moved to France after inheriting a large fortune from his father in August 1870.  He founded a hospital, where he personally received victims of the bombings and distributed provisions. Of his numerous contributions to Parisian heritage, the fountains bearing his name are best known today. He remained faithful to his adopted nation, France, and was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Sir Richard Wallace himself

The design:    

Sir Wallace designed the fountains himself and intended them to be beautiful as well as practical. They consist of an octagonal pedestal where four caryatids (representing kindness, simplicity, charity, and sobriety) stand with backs turned, arms supporting a pointed dome decorated by dolphins. Originally the fountains included two tin-plated iron goblets affixed with a small chain, which were unfortunately removed by the Council of Public Hygiene in 1952.

Detail of the caryatids. Photo: Kalin Petrov

The colours:  

Deep, classy, dark green – the colour was quickly decided upon by the government in order to blend in well with the parks, tree-lined avenues and all other urban developments of the era.  Today however, a few revolutionary coloured Wallaces can be spotted in the city’s 13th arrondisement. Dressed in pink, red, orange and yellow, the fountains in the area aimed to pay homage to an old French tradition, whilst showcasing a more contemporary face of Paris in the same time.

Paint it red! A reborn tradition with some “breaking-the-rules” coloured Wallaces

Around the world:  

Wallace fountains gained such popularity that they began emerging in other countries outside France, such as Spain, Portugal, England, Canada, Uruguay, Italy and even the United States! Some celebrities and wealthy art collectors bought them for their pleasure as well. Such was the case of Maurice Chevalier and Brigitte Bardot.

A blue Wallace in Lisburn, Ireland. Picture: Ardfern, Wikimedia Commons

Not to be missed:      

Placed in a practical manner and integrated in the most harmonious fashion with the environment, most fountains were located in squares or at the intersections of two roads. To have a sip of history, go to:  Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Place Saint-Sulpice, Place des Abbesses, Place Edgar Quinet (at the angle with Rue de la Gaîté) or Place Denfert-Rochereau (at the angle with Boulevard Raspail)… But beware! The fountains operate from March 15th to November 15th – then they hibernate through the winter!

Sir Richard Wallace, caricatured as a Wallace fountain, by Georges Lafosse published in Le Trombinoscope. Image: Wikipedia

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