To have and to hold – An Irishman’s Diary on collector and philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace

Sir Richard Wallace aged 70. Photograph: Copyright The Wallace Collection

Sir Richard Wallace aged 70. Photograph: Copyright The Wallace Collection

 

They are first and foremost places to watch the river of life float by, to enjoy a busking troubadour or catch a whiff of Gauloises smoke. The public squares of French towns and cities with their elegant buildings dripping history bear witness to a colourful past. They have long been meeting places for political and intellectual discussion, for protest, argument, gossip and romance.

The terrasse of a quintessential square is a place to sip an overpriced café crème, watch bad-tempered waiters or frolicking pigeons. Frequently, the squares boast a monumental equine statue, or a less ostentatious fountain often neglected by passers-by. The story behind these green cast-iron drinking fountains is a curious one since they were erected through the benevolence of Sir Richard Wallace, born 200 years ago in 1818. The owner of large estates in Co Antrim, Wallace was MP for Lisburn and its principal benefactor, paying for the improvement of the water supply. His name lives on in a high school, a monument, a park, an avenue and a blue plaque.

Scattered around Paris are more than 60 fountains designed for him by Charles-Auguste Lebourg. They were erected because fresh drinking water was in short supply and expensive. Recognised for their aesthetic simplicity, these small works of art blending into the landscape are known simply as “Wallaces”.

Each month one eclectic object has been chosen as a highlight from among the array of idiosyncratic curios. These include a gold trophy head from 19th-century Ghana

In Paris Vagabond, a discursive account of the city at the end of the second World War, Jean-Paul Clébert mentions a German drifter who haunted the streets for 30 years, sleeping on park benches, “inhaling the Zeitgeist, always silent, opening his mouth only to drink from the Wallace fountains”.

The son of the fourth Marquess of Hertford – one of the richest men in Europe – Wallace grew up in Paris in an area full of auction houses where he learnt to scout for artwork. On his father’s death he inherited the riches which form the vast assemblage of antiques, furniture and decorative art totalling 5,637 items in the Wallace Collection at Hertford House in London; it was said to be the finest collection of pictures and objets d’art in private hands in the world. This spring the collection, in a townhouse in Manchester Square, is adding a new £1.2 million exhibition area. Each month one eclectic object has been chosen as a highlight from among the array of idiosyncratic curios. These include a gold trophy head from 19th-century Ghana, imperial ceremonial wine cups from China, and an object of Irish provenance, an exquisite 11th-century bell shrine from Donegal.

The hand bell was in the Abbey of Fahan in Inishowen, where St Mura (550-645) was the first abbot. Decorated with ornamental work in gold and silver, and set with crystals and amber, the bell’s bronze body is thought to have been made in Kells, Co Meath. It is believed to date to the seventh-century although the decoration is from the 10th-12th centuries. During the Famine of the 1840s the bell was bought from a fisherman at Lisfannon near Buncrana for £6 and sold at Christie’s in London to Lord Londesborough for £72. Wallace later bought the bell, appreciative of its historical and artistic qualities, as well as its Irish connection.

Throughout March it has been chosen as the collection’s “Treasure of the Month”, while in April, Lisburn’s R-Space Gallery is collaborating with glass artist Alison Lowry whose new body of work celebrates the bicentenary focusing on the armoury collection.

The painting continues to fascinate scholars, art connoisseurs and the public, fulfilling Wallace’s hope that it would find a home on Irish soil

Dublin possesses a much larger theatrical example of Wallace’s artistic philanthropy. The National Gallery’s monumental painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife was gifted by him in 1879 after he bought it at Christie’s. It was painted by Daniel Maclise, who was born in Cork, but identified as both Irish and British, describing himself to his friend Charles Dickens as a “Cockneyfied Corkonian”.

The painting depicts the marriage in 1170 of Princess Aoife, the daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, to the Norman military adventurer Richard de Clare, (known as Strongbow) following the capture of Waterford. Originally conceived in 1854 as a preparatory work for a fresco at the Palace of Westminster, the artwork reflects elaborate tableaux-vivants and dramatic use of chiaroscuro. After a three-year conservation it was craned through the gallery where it has pride of place on the end wall of the Shaw Room in the Dargan Wing. In this huge room, lit up with five Waterford Crystal chandeliers, it hangs in the company of portraits of Countess Markievicz, Daniel O’Connell and Joseph Leeson.

The painting continues to fascinate scholars, art connoisseurs and the public, fulfilling Wallace’s hope that it would find a home on Irish soil. He died in 1890 and is buried in the Hertford family tomb at Père Lachaise where you may still drink clean water from a delightfully ornate fontaine Wallace harmonising into the dark greenery.

wallacecollection.org

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