Commissioned in London, carried out in Paris, intended for Dublin: the monument that was never to find its place in the Irish capital tells its own story of the State’s awkward relationship with its British and imperial heritage.
William Gladstone, one of the towering figures of 19th-century British politics, was scarcely dead when The Irish Times, quoting an English journal, noted: "There will be a statue, of course, probably many statues, and they will most of them be good, for Mr. Gladstone's face and form were of the kind which lend themselves to sculpture."
The writer did not yet know that it was indeed proposed to commemorate the former prime minister in portrait statues in London, Edinburgh and Dublin. The Dublin statue was formally proposed in a letter, dated July 15th, 1898, from the duke of Westminster, chairman of the Gladstone National Memorial Fund, to Daniel Tallon, lord mayor of Dublin.
The city council rejected the proposal, in favour of commemorating Parnell with a statue in the city. Unknown to those objecting, Parnell had in the 1880s welcomed an earlier proposal to commemorate Gladstone in Dublin.
In spite of this rejection and the mostly hostile comment in the press, the commission proceeded. A sculptor was selected and had even prepared a model of the monument well before he signed the contract, in 1910, when it was agreed he would receive £6,000 for the work.
The Irish sculptor John Hughes was an unsurprising choice for the commission, as he had recently completed a monument to Queen Victoria for Dublin, unveiled in the forecourt of Leinster House in 1908. The Gladstone statue was to be sited in the People’s Garden in the Phoenix Park, where it would join John Henry Foley’s statue of the earl of Carlisle, the former lord lieutenant, from 1870. (The Carlisle statue was blown up in 1958, and only the pedestal remains in place.)
Hughes was keen to capture a sense of the politician who had so impressed him when he saw Gladstone in action in the course of his art-student years in London. He admired his physique, particularly the “splendid, fearless eyes”, and his classical scholarship. The sculptor, based in Paris at the time of the commission, hired a second studio there in which to make the work.
Although completed and ready for casting in bronze in July 1914, the advent of war delayed this final process until 1920, by when Hughes was aware of what he described as the then “unsettled state of Ireland”.
Nonetheless, though still being considered for erection in Dublin, it was thought best to shift the proposed location of the monument to the grounds of the Vice-Regal Lodge, where it would be less vulnerable, and Hughes was invited to select a site there.
In 1924 the government postponed the decision to accept the work, however, and, ultimately, the Dublin monument went instead to Hawarden, in Wales, where Gladstone had lived. The sculptor was disappointed that the work, which had absorbed so much of his energy, was to be placed “out of sight of everybody who counts”.
The completed monument comprises a standing portrait of Gladstone, accompanied by allegorical representations of Classical Learning, Finance, Eloquence and Erin. The latter, identified by her harp, is positioned at the base of the pedestal looking up towards the politician. The monument was erected with little fanfare in the grounds of St Deniol’s Library in April 1925, when it was proposed by one of the trustees that “if at some future date, the political situation in Ireland makes it possible to erect the statue in Dublin, it should be released and presented to Ireland as originally intended”.
You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Irish Academy's Art and Architecture of Ireland (see ria.ie)