Wallis, George (18111891), museum curator and art teacher, son of John Wallis (17831818) and Mary Price (17841864), was born at Wolverhampton on 8 June 1811 and educated at Wolverhampton grammar school from 1820 to 1827. He practised as a decorative artist at Manchester from 1832 to 1837, but he developed an interest in art education as it applied to design for manufactures, and joined the government School of Design at Somerset House, London, in 1841. He married, on 30 June 1842, Matilda, daughter of William Cundall of Camberwell. They had at least two sons. He became headmaster of the Spitalfields School in January 1843 and was promoted to the headmastership of the Manchester School of Design on 15 January 1844, which position he resigned in 1846, as he could not agree with administrative and educational changes at Somerset House. As part of a continued advocacy of industrial exhibitions of the sort held quinquennially in Paris, he organized what was probably the first exhibition of art manufactures ever held in England, at the Manchester Royal Institution in 1845. In the same year he delivered a systematic course of lectures on the principles of decorative art which led Lord Clarendon to ask him to draw up a chart of artistic and scientific instruction in relation to industrial art. Wallis's ideas on the subject were claimed as an important influence on the system of instruction later developed by the Department of Science and Art.
The royal commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1851 appointed Wallis deputy commissioner for the eastern division of London, the northern counties of England, and the whole of Ireland, a position he exercised from 1850. During the Great Exhibition itself he was superintendent of the British textile division and a deputy commissioner of juries. After the close of the exhibition, he accepted the headmastership of the Birmingham School of Design. In 1853 he was again appointed as a commissioner sent by the government to the United States to report on the New York Industrial Exhibition, along with Charles Lyall, Wentworth Dilke, Joseph Whitworth, and John Wilson. Wallis's and Whitworth's reports were subsequently used to compile The Industry of the United States in Machinery, Manufactures, and Useful and Ornamental Arts (1854), which helped frame British attitudes to the threat of American economic competition. During the International Exhibition of 1862 Wallis acted in the same capacity as he had done in 1851 and was again actively engaged in the British sections for the Paris exhibitions of 1855 and 1867.
In 1858 Wallis left Birmingham and joined the South Kensington Museum, where in 1863 he was appointed senior keeper of the art collections, a post he retained until just before his death; he thus presided over a period of marked expansion in the museum's collections and installations. He was succeeded by Caspar Purdon Clarke. Wallis was an early advocate of state aid for art and had a large share in promoting the system of circulating works of art in provincial museums. He exhibited a few paintings at the Academy, Suffolk Street, and elsewhere. On 7 March 1878 he was elected FSA. He wrote in most of the leading artistic periodicals, including the Magazine of Art and the Art Journal, to which he was one of the earliest contributors, and also delivered a vast number of lectures on design and kindred subjects. He published a number of books on decorative and industrial art, fine arts, and art education. He died at 21 St George's Road, Wimbledon, on 24 October 1891 and was buried in Highgate cemetery on 28 October.
G. C. Boase, rev. R. C. Denis
Art Journal, new ser., 11 (1891), 384 · The Athenaeum (31 Oct 1891), 591 · Magazine of Art, 15 (18912), 6972, esp. 69 · ILN (17 Oct 1891) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1892)
A. Legros, oils, V&A · portrait, repro. in Daily Graphic (28 Oct 1891) · portrait, repro. in Art Journal · portrait, repro. in ILN · portrait, repro. in London Figaro (14 Oct 1891) · portrait, repro. in Magazine of Art
Wealth at death
£1817 9s. 8d.: resworn probate, Oct 1892, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1891)