WhydotheShelbourne Hotel’s statues have to go?
The mini-controversy which blew up this week over the Shelbourne Hotel’s removal of four statues from its front entrance on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin has been, by turns, instructive, thought-provoking and depressing.
When the story first broke, it was noticeable how few of the media outlets running it actually had a decent photograph to hand of the statues (really mass-produced lampholders) which, depending on who you believe, depict either chained Nubian slave girls or Egyptian princesses (or both).
Like many examples of the commercial decorative arts, the items seem not to have impinged much on the public consciousness. They’ve never featured on postcards and they don’t show up on Instagram. In truth, their particular brand of Second Empire exoticism is a rare sight in Dublin, and doesn’t particularly chime with the city’s image of itself.
So it may not be surprising that much of the public reaction on social media to the removal was along the lines of: “Statues? What statues? Never noticed them.”
The French-manufactured figures, which have adorned the frontage of the Shelbourne since the mid-1860s, were removed by hotel management on Monday. General manager JP Kavanagh told The Irish Times there had been no complaints about them.
“This decision has been coming for a number of weeks given what has been happening in the world,” he said.
This is, presumably, a reference to #BlackLivesMatter protests which have toppled statues to slave traders, Confederate leaders and perpetrators of colonialist genocide in many countries.
However, the Shelbourne pieces don’t have any connection with race-based chattel slavery or atrocities in the Congo. They represent instead a particular French fashion of the period in which they were made.
“Everything Egyptian was the highest of high fashion at the time,” according to John Ducie, a tour guide and former vicechairman of An Taisce. “You will find these statues all over the place. People put them in their homes. Everything Egyptian was so chic – especially the French take on it.”
An erudite letter-writer (is there any other sort?) to The Irish Times has blamed the writer Elizabeth Bowen for describing the statues as Nubian princesses and slave girls, pointing to contrary evidence in the manufacturer’s catalogue.
“The ‘nubian slave’ is, indeed, a widely fetishised Orientalist visual trope of the 19th century,” wrote Kyle Leyden. “However, she differs from the Shelbourne statue in one important aspect: she is almost invariably (and with some degree of historic authenticity) represented nude. The lavish draping and jewellery of the Shelbourne statue clearly demonstrate it is not, nor was it ever intended, to be read as a slave.”
This may well be so, but the fact remains that an exoticised, sensual fantasy of the “Oriental” (which in this context usually means Arab) woman is still visible in a much less overt way in the Shelbourne pieces. Is that a valid reason to take them down? Perhaps, if you’re going to take down half of Paris at the same time. Otherwise it might be better to talk through the issues. This is where things take a depressing turn.
First, the Shelbourne’s decision was not just premature but potentially illegal. It beggars belief that management were unaware of this, given their long collaboration with the relevant authorities on the hotel’s major renovation just a few years ago.
In truth, their particular brand of Second Empire exoticism is a rare sight in Dublin
Second, the standard of the “debate” conducted mostly on social media over the past few days has been predictably low, with two camps rapidly forming and engaging in trench warfare. One lot blames ahistorical wokeness and corporate fear of cancel culture for the decision. The other claims this country’s own complicity in racist oppression and Irish blindness to white privilege makes such actions inevitable and necessary. Amid the cacophony, the original artworks fade quickly into the background.
Will we ever see them on St Stephen’s Green again? The fear is that, by merely drawing attention to their existence, the Shelbourne has made targets of the statues if they’re ever reinstated, and may therefore have rendered their permanent departure inevitable. This would be a terrible shame.
The statues rank with the billiardplaying monkeys (now sadly eroded) on the façade of the old Kildare Street Club or the frieze on Sunlight Chambers as a key part of the long undervalued fabric of the Dublin of the 19th and 20th centuries, most of which has been trashed and despoiled by successive generations of the city’s own most highly respected citizens. It would be regrettable if we found new reasons in the 21st century to destroy or remove what little is left.
Does anyone in Marvel ever say anything as winning as “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”? Does Wonder Woman or Batman ever fly blind on a rocket cycle? Has any other comic book adaptation ever had the wit and wisdom to put wings on Brian Blessed?
No, because these things only happen in the greatest superhero movie ever made: Flash Gordon.
The 1980 camp classic, which has been restored in 4K to mark its 40th anniversary, has a history of happy accidents following its hero’s first appearance in a comic strip in 1934. Buck Rogers, another intergalactic hero, had already spawned novelisations and toys when King Features Syndicate – a subsidiary of the Hearst newspaper empire – approached Edgar Rice Burroughs with a plan to adapt John Carter into a comic strip. When the Tarzan author failed to agree terms, the company approached staff artist Alex Raymond to create a space-hopping rival.
The result was Flash Gordon, a dashing polo player and Yale graduate who teams up with love interest Dale Arden and scientist Dr Hans Zarkov in order to prevent Earth from colliding with the sinister planet Mongo.
In common with Superman, Flash was banned under the Nazis, but otherwise enjoyed a run as a daily strip from 1934 to 1992, and continued as a Sunday strip until 2003. It was syndicated in some 130 countries, including Ireland, from the 1950s. In the 1970s George Lucas attempted to make a film based on the Flash serial films of the 1930s. When he failed to acquire the rights from Italian super-producer Dino De Laurentiis, Lucas created his own Flash-enthralled space opera.
The success of Star Wars prompted De Laurentiis to approach some of the most incongruous directors imaginable. Federico Fellini briefly optioned the Flash Gordon rights from the producer, but never made the film.
“He went to Fellini first,” recalls screenwriter Michael Allin. “And Federico said: ‘Oh Dino, of course’. And then he disappeared and it turned into a British production. I met Nic Roeg years before Flash Gordon and we always wanted to work together. I had a big picture one year called Enter the Dragon, and he had a big picture that year called Don’t Look Now. We hit it off immediately. He was the coolest dude on the planet at that moment.
“He called me a couple of years later from Claridge’s in London. He said: ‘I’m here with Dino; how about we write a movie for him? I said: ‘Tell me where and when; what’s the movie?’ He said: ‘It’s Flash Gordon’.”
Together Allin and Roeg dreamed up a version that was “Adam and Eve being chased by a jealous God” in which a genocidal Ming the Merciless, Ruler of Mongo, depopulates the universe world by world, save for one female from each planet with whom he would repopulate that world.
Completely the wrong director
De Laurentiis, however, wanted something less biblical. He soon approached Sergio Leone, who declined because he believed the script was not faithful to the original
Raymond comics. Finally he hired Mike Hodges, the English writer-director of Pulp and Get Carter.
“I have no idea why he chose me,” laughs Hodges. “Nic was a friend of mine and he suggested me. I met with Dino and I looked at the script and I said: ‘Look, I’m completely the wrong director. I’m not someone who is into special effects.’ But Dino persisted and eventually I agreed, persuaded by my two sons, who really wanted me to make it.”
In the meantime, De Laurentiis drafted in Lorenzo Semple Jr, the writer behind Batman, the kitsch hit 1960s TV series starring Adam West, and set out to find his Flash Gordon. Originally he approached Kurt Russell, who turned it down because he felt the character was one-dimensional. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted the role but was denied because of his thick Austrian accent. (De Laurentiis kept in touch and later hired the future governor of California to play Conan the Barbarian.)
“It was a very difficult part to cast, to be honest with you,” says Hodges. “I saw a lot of actors. And none of them were suitable at all. Then Dino’s mother-in-law – who is an English woman – was watching a television programme in America called Celebrity Squares. And she saw Sam Jones in one of the squares. And she was right! Sam got a lot of rotten tomatoes thrown at him when the film first came out. But I think he’s absolutely perfect. He’s got that lantern jaw. He’s both very physical and he had an innocence about him which is quite rare nowadays and was rare then. I can’t think of anybody better than Sam.
“The thing about Flash Gordon is that he’s one clown short of a circus. Flash Gordon is not very bright. When I’m in one of my more facetious moods, I’ve said that he’s a metaphor for American foreign policy, which has always been erratic and mind-boggling and imperialist. So I was very grateful when we finally found a person who could play the role.”
In a priority-revealing quote from Dino: The Life and Films of Dino De Laurentiis, the producer says: “He was a blond, buff, American boy, in great shape and even capable of acting.”
In 1977, Sam J Jones, a former Marine and semi-pro footballer with the Seattle Flyers, picked up a magazine featuring an interview with Clint Eastwood. In the months that followed, he talked endlessly about going to Hollywood to try his luck as an actor.
Flash Gordon is not very bright. When I’m in one of my more facetious moods, I’ve said that he’s a metaphor for American foreign policy, which has always been erratic and mind-boggling and imperialist