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.
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
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 vice-chairman 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.
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 billiard-playing 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.