Working initially in pipe clay and wire, Wallis would make a detailed model of his subjects (typically dead game birds and foliage) before applying his extraordinary talent to a single block of limewood. He won gold medals at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
There have been two recent opportunities to inspect at close quarters Wallis's remarkable ability to mould and shape wood.
The Ailsa Woodcock, commissioned in 1854 by the Marquis of Ailsa, for Cassilis Castle, Ayrshire, is a new acquisition for the Louth Museum. The Lincolnshire museum owns the largest cache of Wallis carvings on public display.
In his autobiography, published in 1899, Wallis notes that he was paid £40 for this 2ft 7in (78cm) carving.
Some 15 years ago, when the staff at the Louth Museum began researching the present locations of all the carvings mentioned in the autobiography, they were delighted to learn that the woodcock was still at Cassilis Castle. It was of particular interest as the museum owned the clay maquette for this model.
However, unbeknown to the museum, on the death of the wife of the 7th Marquis of Cassilis, it was sold along with the house contents in July 2009 by Edinburgh saleroom Shapes. It made £1150 (estimate £300-500).
The Louth Museum Society learnt of the sale in ATG and embarked upon a hunt to acquire the carving. When they tracked down the purchaser, an Edinburgh dealer, the piece had already been sold on to London's Anthony Outred Antiques.
The Pimlico Road dealer offered it to the museum for a special price of £5500. The Art Fund agreed to support half of the purchase but - so impressed were they by the quality of the object - they ended up funding the full cost in celebration of the museum's centenary in 2010.
It joins on permanent display other Wallis carvings (including Heron with Bulrush and Ivy bought for £11,644 in 2008) and a self-portrait painted by Wallis towards the end of his career. When failing eyesight put an end to carving in his 50s, he taught himself surveying and became Borough Surveyor of Louth.
The sum paid by Louth Museum for the woodcock was put in perspective when another Thomas Wilkinson Wallis limewood carving appeared for sale at Tennants of Leyburn on March 27. Standing 23in (59cm) high, this still life depicted a group of three birds - a warbler, a chaffinch and a snipe - suspended by 'twine' from a stump of blackthorn. To the rockwork base, signed and dated 1856, are the two snail shells that are something of a Wallis trademark.
Estimated at £2000-3000, it sold at £15,000 (plus 15 per cent buyer's premium).
Contact Louth Museum on 01507 601211.
By Roland Arkell