TIME TO PUT FOLEY ON A PEDESTAL
As we mark 200 years since the birth of the country’s most iconic and beloved sculptor...
JOHN Henry Foley (1818-1874) was probably the most influential sculptor in Irish history. Born in Dublin, his breathtaking statues and equestrian masterpieces bedecked city squares and parklands from Dublin to Kolkata to Virginia.
His best-known Irish works include the Daniel O’Connell monument on O’Connell Street and the Father Mathew statue in Cork. Queen Victoria personally requested that Foley create the statue of her beloved husband for the Albert Memorial in London. When Foley died, the queen decreed that the gifted Irishman be buried in Westminster Abbey, an extraordinary honour for a man born into relative poverty in Dublin’s northside.
A boy genius, he was educated at the Royal Dublin Society’s Drawing Schools at Leinster House, where he won numerous prizes in modelling. He then moved to the Royal Academy in London to develop his career.
In 1844, he won a contest to sculpt two figures for the newly restored Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Thereafter, he was never short of portrait commissions in Britain, Ireland and across the Empire.
Foley’s works were fated to provoke controversy long after his death. His hat-trick of imperialist equestrian statues in Kolkata were dismantled after Indian independence. Several of his Irish works were also destroyed – his statue of Lord Dunkellin was heaved into the River Corrib by the people of Galway in 1922; his Dublin monuments to Lord Carlisle and General Gough were blown sky-high in the 1950s.
The debate on whether all of his works should remain continues. In February 2018, the Oireachtas Petitions Committee rejected a petition seeking the removal of his statue of Prince Albert from Leinster Lawn by Dáil Éireann.
To mark the bicentenary of Foley’s birth in 1818, filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle and myself have teamed up with the Office of Public Works to host ‘Ireland Salutes John Henry Foley’, an afternoon of film, talks and debate at Dublin Castle this Sunday, May 20. The other speakers who will gather to consider Foley’s life and times include Dr Patrick Wallace, Dr Paula Murphy, Jason Ellis and Ronan Sheehan.
Here, we look at some of Foley’s finest pieces of work.
1) OLIVER GOLDSMITH, COLLEGE GREEN, DUBLIN
‘Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain, with grammar, and nonsense, and learning, Good liquor, I stoutly maintain, gives genius a better discerning.’ So opined the 18th-century novelist, poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, whose bronze statue Foley completed in 1864. It stands by the main entrance of Trinity College Dublin, where Goldsmith ‘studied’ in the 1740s. The poet was no model student; he learned how to drink, play cards, master the flute and sing Irish airs shortly before he was suspended for participating in a riot. Foley ignored such trivia, depicting a pensive, slightly awkward Goldsmith holding an open book and a pencil, with a fine neckerchief. Queen Victoria chipped in £100 to fund the work.
2) EDMUND BURKE, COLLEGE GREEN, DUBLIN
‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ Such prescient words, attributed to Burke, combined with his opposition to the Penal Laws and his support of the American Revolution, made the Dubliner the hero of the liberal world in the 1780s.
His bronze statue, created by Foley, stands on the adjacent lawn to Goldsmith outside Trinity College, where Burke founded the College Historical Society. The great orator stands tall and determined, eloquent and fashionably attired. His statue was unveiled in 1868 by the Prince of Wales (later king Edward VII).
3) HENRY GRATTAN, COLLEGE GREEN
In Foley’s depiction of Henry Grattan, the eminent Irish patriot has his right hand outstretched, frozen in time at the very moment in which he triumphantly declared Ireland’s legislative independence from the UK. Commissioned by Dublin Corporation, it stands on College Green, directly opposite the former Parliament House, where Grattan was such an immense presence, and on the very spot where the Volunteers paraded in their thousands to support him.
The statue was unveiled in 1876 by his daughter-in-law, Lady Laura Grattan.
4) DANIEL O’CONNELL MONUMENT, O’CONNELL STREET, DUBLIN
Foley’s elaborate monument to the memory of the Liberator on the capital city’s main thoroughfare is his best-known work in his native Dublin.
The four winged ‘Victories’ at the limestone base represent Patriotism, Fidelity, Courage and Eloquence, while the figures surrounding the drum embody all classes ‘from the peer to the peasant’ who supported O’Connell, who died in 1847.
The figure of O’Connell stands 14ft (4.2 metres) in height, clad in his famous cloak, while Erin holds the Catholic Emancipation Act.
Unveiled in 1882, eight years after Foley’s death, the monument was completed by his apprentice Thomas Brock. Impressive: Statue of Daniel O’Connell in Dublin city centre
5) SIR BENJAMIN LEE GUINNESS, ST PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL, DUBLIN.
Guinness, the brewing magnate – a grandson of the original Arthur Guinness – was the richest man in Ireland from 1855 until his death in 1868. His handsomely seated statue rests on a pedestal of Aberdeen granite and depicts a thoughtful, benevolent Sir Benjamin pondering the architectural plans for the restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral, a project he single-handedly financed.
The bronze statue, which was unveiled at the south side of the cathedral in 1875, is believed to be the last work to receive ‘the final touches’ of Foley’s own hand.
6) FATHER MATHEW, PATRICK STREET, CORK.
The whole of Cork took the day off when Foley’s statue of Fr Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, was unveiled in 1864. The Capuchin friar founded the Total Abstinence Society, a movement that racked up over four million members throughout Ireland at one point. It led to a massive fall in crime, and the closure of several breweries and distilleries. Fr Mathew is represented in the act of blessing a multitude who have just taken the pledge. The unveiling coincided with the centenary of his birth. When Cork’s mayor called for ‘three cheers for Fr Mathew,’ an estimated 100,000 Corkonian voices hurrahed.
7) ALBERT MEMORIAL, LONDON
In 1847, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, gave Foley’s career a boost when he acquired one of the Irishman’s works for his private collection at Osborne House. Twenty years later, the queen visited Foley’s London studio and invited him to sculpt a memorial to her late husband.
Victoria, who ensured Foley was ‘handsomely remunerated’ from her ‘private purse’, was delighted with his ‘remarkably fine and dignified’ statue. The ten-tonne bronze creation sits today under a starry canopy at the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park.
Foley was working on a sculpture group called ‘Asia’ for the corner of the memorial when he was seized with an attack of pleurisy.
8) FIELD MARSHAL LORD GOUGH, PHOENIX PARK
Foley’s Gough is the Humpty Dumpty of statues, pieced together again and again after a series of violent attacks. The equestrian monument depicts Hugh Gough, a Limerick-born war hero, who led the British Army to victory over the Sikhs and captured the Punjab. The statue of this ‘most illustrious Irishman’ was cast in bronze from the metal of guns taken in Gough’s Sikh campaign. A young Winston Churchill was present when it was unveiled in Phoenix Park in 1880.
Persistently sabotaged by republicans, the statue was all but destroyed by an explosion in 1957. In 1986, it was removed from the country for safekeeping, and is now in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, Northumberland.