Friday, 4 March 2011

Origin of the World, an extended footnote, part three (with not just one but four footnotes of its own)

Back to Sir Richard Wallace . . .

I'll get to his paternity in time but there is also doubt about his mother. The likeliest candidate was a woman born Agnes Wallace, a descendant of Scots independence leader Sir William Wallace. Born in 1789 - to a friend of Lord Hertford's - Agnes married a Mr Bickley, bore him a couple of children, then ran off to Brighton, where she hung out with soldiers. In particular, with the 10th (Prince of Wales's Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Hussars). Which is where she would have met the future fourth Lord Hertford - he was an eighteen-year-old officer in the regiment (and ten years her senior). By now she was Agnes Jackson - though there is no record of a Mr Jackson. Or of any dalliancing between Agnes and that Lord Hertford.

There was a child, though, and the guess is that when Agnes returned to her husband - by whom she would go on to have two more children - he didn't want her illegitimate son. So Agnes took him to Paris and left him with her hussar friend's mother.

The boy and Mie-Mie became close. He called her aunt. She called him her beloved nephew. He grew up something of a playboy, running up tabs and bills he couldn't pay. Though declining to buy Richard a commission in the navy, the third Lord Hertford did pay off his regular debts - £100,000 over two years*. He also took him on as his secretary - on £1,000 a year. He was responsible for the art collection and making additions to it. In 1865 alone, he bought 34 pictures, spending a million francs**. All that armour in the Wallace Collection was mostly his choice.

He also bought some art for himself. And got into debt again - speculating on the Paris bourse. Lord Hertford wouldn't pay his debts this time, told the lad he'd have to auction his collection. Which he did and . . . Lord Hertford bought his best five paintings. Which, of course, Wallace ended up inheriting back. Not that he knew he would. When Lord Hertford died in 1870, just as the Prussian guns were threatening Paris, the fact that Richard Wallace was the heir came as much a surprise to him as it did to the cousin who inherited the title and a couple of estates but not the cash to support them.

He was, surprisingly, something of a hero during the 1870-71 siege of the city, putting his inheritance to immediate charitable use. He spent perhaps £500,000 on medical relief and arranged for the care and repatriation of the 4,000 British exiles caught in the city. For a while, he was 'the most talked about man in England'.

For which kindnesses, he had a boulevard named after him. It's near La Défense, on the north west of the city itself, just beyond the Péripherique. A pleasant, tree-lined street with an iron-railinged park, it's considered 'the Champs-Élysées of Puteaux'. George Simenon lived there 1936-8 and — a fan website informs — there are several scenes set there in Maigret novels. Wallace was buried, in the family tomb, in Père Lachaise.

His mark is still there all over Paris proper, too. Those black cast-iron drinking fountains, with their maidens-in-drapery caryatids, they were commissioned and paid for by him. Known as Wallace Fountains, there are still 66 of them around the place. There's also one outside the Wallace Collection in London. Oh, and Brigitte Bardot has one, too.

* In current terms? Well, if you take just inflation as a measure, it comes out at about £7million. But if you take it as a percentage of GDP, it comes out at nearly £150 million***.

** As far as I can figure out, there were at that time roughly 25 francs to the pound. So, using the same formula as above, that would today equate to either £2.8 million or £60 million. Given current art prices, that seems really cheap - it wouldn't even get you four major Freuds or Bacons.****

*** How could he afford it? The family had large estates, producing big rents - £60,000 a year in 1841.

**** Apropos of irrelevance, as an editor, I once arranged for an art review to be tweaked so we could use the headline 'Bacon and two Freud eggs'.

Next up 'Mon Dieu, est-ce que nou n'aurons jamai fini de bâtards?'

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