Paris, the world’s most beautiful English city
The assertion that Paris is an “English” city sounds almost like a provocation – especially to Parisians.
Yet in truth, the modern Paris that attracts millions of tourists who come to admire the City of Light’s grand boulevards and burnished facades owes its urban design inspiration to London. Even quintessentially Parisian aesthetic touches around the city – such as the famous Renaissance-style Wallace drinking fountains that ornament public squares – are the work of an English benefactor.
The Paris that Louis XIV and his Bourbon predecessors knew no longer exists. The Sun King would scarcely recognise the French capital which in his lifetime he shunned, preferring his resplendent Versailles surroundings far from the Parisian rabble. Modern Paris is largely a Second Empire city rebuilt by Napoleon III in the latter half of the 19th century.
After seizing power in a coup d’état in 1851, Napoleon III set out to restore France’s imperial glory and re-establish Paris as the centre of civilisation. Unlike his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte who had dismissed England as a “nation of shopkeepers”, Napoleon III was an unapologetic Anglophile. No wonder, he’d spent many years in exile in England. As a young man in London, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, as he was then known, looked around him with admiration and envy.
Once installed as French emperor, Napoleon III was unembarrassed about reshaping Paris in the image of the London he admired for its grand avenues, open public spaces, lush urban parks, and vast gardens à l’anglaise. During the early years of the Second Empire, Paris was literally demolished and reconstructed. Roughly 60% of the old medieval city was destroyed. Many of today’s grand Parisian boulevards and wide commercial streets – rue de Rivoli, boulevard Saint-Michel, avenue de l’Opéra – were carved out during the 1850s.
It is often claimed that Napoleon III wanted wide streets so troops and canons could be rapidly deployed against the unruly Parisian mob. That is only partly true. There were other, more compelling, reasons to redesign Paris. One was public hygiene. In the mid-19th century the city’s exploding population was increasingly exposed to the dangers of disease in cramped medieval conditions. Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables painted a graphic portrait the abject poverty and shocking disregard for social justice during that period. In the cholera outbreak of 1832, some 20,000 Parisians perished out of a total population of 650,000. Parisians needed modern sewers and breathing space.
Besides Napoleon III, the name most associated with the transformation of Paris is Georges-Eugène Haussmann. A Protestant from Alsace, Haussmann was an outsider in Parisian society — and regarded as something of a social climber. Though known as “baron” Haussmann, he was never ennobled. He was a classic French state fonctionnaire who had reached the somewhat less exalted rank of prefect. Yet his legacy was greater than even he could have imagined. It was Haussmann who oversaw the demolition and reconstruction of Paris, which he reconfigured into the twenty arrondissements that we know today. More famously, he gave his name to the architectural style known as “haussmannien” to describe the familiar six-storey Parisian residential building with a burnished façade and black metallic balconies.
The Second Empire was short-lived, mainly due to Napoleon III’s tragically ill-advised decision to provoke war with the Prussians. The Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 brought the French capital to its knees. Parisians were so famished they began killing and eating dogs, cats, pigeons and rats for food. It’s estimated that some 65,000 horses were slaughtered for food, including two of Napoleon III’s stallions given to the French emperor by the Russian czar as a gift. Napoleon III, humiliated by defeat, fled in exile to England (where he died and was buried).
One of the city’s wealthiest residents at the time was an Englishman called Richard Wallace. He was the illegitimate son of the Marquess of Hertford who, though he never recognised him as his son, left Wallace a huge fortune including the Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne outside of Paris. In England today, Wallace is famous mainly for the Wallace Collection of art located in his London residence in Manchester Square. In Paris, where Wallace was raised by a grandmother from age six, he was known as a prodigious art collector and friend to writers such as Baudelaire and Flaubert. His most lasting legacy in Paris were the ornate fountains that can still be seen throughout the city.
Wallace was in Paris during the Prussian siege and the violent chaos of the Commune that followed. He used his money for great acts of charity, financing an ambulance service for the wounded. In total Wallace donated the equivalent of $7 million to help the people of Paris. Following the Franco-Prussian War, Wallace’s charity extended to the construction of public drinking fountains to bring clean potable water to the war-ravaged city’s poor.
Wallace turned to Charles-Auguste Lebourg to design the original 50 cast-iron fountains inspired by the Fontaine des Innocents in the city’s Halles district. The fountains were easily recognisable for their dark green Grecian motif featuring four caryatids statuettes, each symbolising a virtue: kindness, simplicity, charity, sobriety. Later different models of the Wallace fountain were added to the city’s streets, including a colonnaded fountain and one fountain embedded in a wall in the rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Many of the Wallace fountains in Paris still spout clean water today. On hot summer days, tourists can be seen at Wallace fountains filling up their water bottles.
I’m always on the lookout for Wallace fountains when strolling through the streets of Paris. There is one, for example, right in the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, just behind the Deux Magots. This summer I took photos of Oscar in front of various Wallace fountains – one in the Place Saint-Sulpice and another in the Champs-Elysées (see photos above and below left*). There are even websites that provide maps showing the location of each Wallace fountain in the city.
In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Wallace returned to England where he moved in powerful circles, received a baronetcy, and became a Member of Parliament. He eventually returned to Paris where he died at age 72. He is buried today in the city’s Père Lachaise cemetery. His widow Lady Wallace — who was French and spoke no English — lived out her life in the opulent isolation of the London mansion in which the Wallace Collection is housed today.
If it’s a slight exaggeration to assert that Paris is an “English” city, it can be claimed that the city owes its unique design and character to inspiration from across the Channel. The most enjoyable, people-friendly public parks in Paris – such as Parc Montsouris, Parc Monceau and the Bois de Boulogne – were inspired by the jardin anglais and created during the Second Empire.
It certainly can be said that the combined legacies of Napoleon III and Sir Richard Wallace left an unmistakable English mark on Paris. Napoleon III redesigned the City of Light inspired by his admiration for London; and Wallace used his great fortune to bestow on Paris the public fountains that still give the city its quintessentially Parisian character.
* The photos of Oscar, in the Place Saint-Sulpice and on the Champs-Elysées, were taken in late August and early September. They are among the last photos I took of Oscar, who died suddenly at home on September 23, 2013.
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