Ireland's Forgotten Sculptor
by Aidan O'Shea © 2015
My story links the cities of Dublin, London and Cork. The sculpted figure above stands in a recess on the façade of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It represents a 19th century Irish sculptor whose work is almost forgotten today.
John Henry Foley was born at No. 6 Montgomery Street, Dublin, on 24th May, 1818. Montgomery Street, nicknamed Monto, was a poor and sordid district of the city. His father, Jesse Foley, a native of Winchester, had settled in Dublin where he was employed in a glass factory, and later owned a grocery shop in Mecklenburg Street. John Henry, his second son, received little education, and advanced in life through his industry and love of reading. Influenced by the example of his elder brother Edward, who had adopted sculpture as a profession, John Henry, aged 13, entered the schools of the Royal Dublin Society. He excelled, winning prizes for modelling and drawing, and aged 15, in 1833 won the society's principal medal. The teenager mastered his craft under the brilliant Edward Smyth at the Royal Dublin Society.
He joined his brother Edward in London, and in the following year became a student at the Royal Academy, where he devoted himself entirely to sculpture. He settled at 19 Osnaburgh Street, in 1848, where he opened a studio. He won the Academy's silver medal, and in 1839 exhibited his "Death of Abel" and "Innocence," both of which attracted attention.
John Henry Foley became one the most influential sculptors of the middle decades of the 19th century. As a champion of Britain's imperial values, his breath-taking equestrian masterpieces strode across city squares and parklands from Dublin to Calcutta. Queen Victoria personally requested that he create the statue of her beloved Prince Albert which sits at the core of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. By the age of forty Foley had reached, solely through his own merits, the highest place in his profession. His success was due not only to his artistic gifts, but to his resolution and his enormous capacity for work.
Foley was, at his best, superior to any of his contemporaries. He threw aside the worn-out imitation of the classical Greco-Roman style. His works show a vitality of human character and historical context, a sense of anatomy, and a decorative feeling, qualities often absent in the lifeless works of others.
Following the death of Father Theobald Mathew, a proposal to erect a monument in his honour was enthusiastically received by the citizens of Cork, reflecting the respect and affection he had inspired during his lifetime. The Tallow-born sculptor John Hogan (1800-1858) was chosen to design the monument. Hogan died before he could execute his design and the commission was then given to John Henry Foley. The result is impressive, heroic and yet humane. The Father Mathew statue was cast in London in the foundry of Mr Prince, Union Street, Southwark. It was placed on a stone pedestal designed by W. Atkins of Cork. The unveiling of the statue took place on 10 October 1864 amid scenes of great rejoicing. 'The Statue' has held a special place in the affections of Corkonians ever since, as demonstrated in the year 2000 when a proposal to move the statue to a new site near Winthrop Street was abandoned following protests from the people of Cork.
In 1866 Foley was given the commission to execute the O'Connell Monument for Dublin, after much bickering by the fundraising committee and in spite of objections made by a clique against giving the work to "a London artist." He had completed the sketch models and was engaged on the full-sized clay models when his acute illness and death halted the crowning work of his career. The O'Connell monument was finished after Foley's death by his assistant, Thomas Brock. It features a bronze statue 12 feet high, standing on a limestone pedestal and base 28 feet high. At the corners of the base are four seated winged figures 11 feet high, representing Victory by Patriotism, by Fidelity, by Courage and by Eloquence. One of these figures shows bullet holes from the 1916 Rising. On the drum of the pedestal are figures in high relief; Éire, 8 feet high, trampling under foot her discarded fetters, her left hand grasping the Act of Emancipation. Her right hand points upwards to the figure of the Liberator. Éire is surrounded by groups representing the Church and various occupations. Thus Foley could celebrate the resurgent Irish nation as well as the pomp of empire. Sackville Street became O'Connell Street. Modern traffic congestion makes it difficult to fully appreciate the details of this monumental work.
At the time of his premature death aged 56, Foley's workshop was filled with incomplete commissions. He had for some time suffered from ill-health, a pleural effusion brought on in 1871 from exposure to cold while modelling his group of "Asia" (above), part of The Albert Memorial in London. Note the confident sculpture group celebrating the height of British imperial power. Foley died in his house, the Priory, Hampstead, on 27th August, 1874, and was buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral on the command of Queen Victoria.
In his will, made shortly before his death, he provided for his widow and two unmarried sisters and devised the bulk of his property to the Artists' Benevolent Fund. He bequeathed his casts in his studio to Dublin, to be placed in a gallery in the Royal Dublin Society's house or in its school where he had received his first art teaching. The Society was unable to provide the space, the Corporation of Dublin refused to take charge of the casts, and the National Gallery does not appear to have made any effort to obtain them. Five years after, however, a selection was placed in the hall of Leinster House; others were subsequently added, and the collection is now in the National Museum, Kildare Street.
Foley's other public works include the fine bronzes of Henry Grattan, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke, all located in College Green, Dublin. In this decade of commemorations, his artistry should not be forgotten.