Removal of statues from the Shelbourne

 

Sir, – A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing: and so it appears to be with the management of the Shelbourne Hotel. Hearing the words “Nubian slave”, in an act of unparalleled panic, it seems, they have removed a very significant aesthetic component of one of Dublin’s finest 19th-century architectural ensembles without real cause (Home News, July 29th).

Any research on what the statues actually represented would have revealed that Elizabeth Bowen’s oft-repeated description of them in her deliciously evocative 1951 history of the Shelbourne as “Nubian in aspect . . . two are princesses; two are slave girls” was based on little more than Dublin myth and popular belief and was, in fact, entirely incorrect.

A cursory reference to the trade catalogue from which the statues were ordered in 1867 reveals they were originally sculpted by Mathurin Moreau, one of the most prolific French sculptors of the 19th century. Between 1849 and 1879, he worked in collaboration with the Fonderie d’Art du Val d’Osne, the largest art foundry in France. He sculpted these statues as versatile models to be mass produced as both torchères and fountains. They are quite common in both forms across France and Britain. In the catalogue they are entitled “Egyptienne” and “Négresse”: there is no mention of slavery or even Nubia. Neither model is “shackled” as has been misreported since their removal; both wear golden anklets as pieces of jewellery.

One can only imagine the reference to Nubia arose from the fact that the hotel’s owners and architect would have been aware that many of ancient Egypt’s luxury commodities were sourced in the Nubia region – today divided between southern Egypt and Sudan – and that Nubian princesses had several times married into the Egyptian royal family. In this context, the four statues in fact represented royal ladies, two from Egypt and two from Nubia, hinting at the lavish luxuries that awaited patrons within the new hotel.

It seems it is this reference to “Nubia” which has misled popular thought. The “nubian slave” is, indeed, a widely fetishised Orientalist visual trope of the 19th century. 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.

It is only to be hoped that those wishing in future to act – with the very best of intentions – in solidarity with positive societal movements might take a moment to ensure that their actions have basis in sound research. – Yours, etc,

KYLE LEYDEN,

London, UK.

Sir, – My grandfather was Oisín Kelly, sculptor of the Children of Lír in the Garden of Remembrance. In a rare recorded interview, he cited the four statues outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin as particularly fine works of art on a public street. Sadly they have now all been removed by the hotel as they believe that two of the figures are depictions of slaves (albeit from thousands of years ago). The so-called “slave girls” have been widely reported to be manacled or shackled. Having looked carefully at photographs of them, it seems to me that they are simply wearing decorative anklets like the two princesses. There is surely no justification in depriving future generations of Dubliners of these wonderful statues. – Yours, etc,

EDWARD M KELLY,

Rathmines, Dublin 6.

Sir, – The Shelbourne Hotel, in its rush to be seen to be politically correct in this present ludicrous debate has got one thing right, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The “slave girl” statues are in fact Luciferian symbols, part of the Masonic architecture that is so widespread in Dublin and throughout Ireland. The torches that the slave girls hold aloft indicate that they represent the “bearers or bringers of light” as in lux “light” and ferre “to bring”. – Yours, etc,

Capt DONAL BUCKLEY

(Ret’d),

Author of Freemasonry

Symbols in Ireland,

Castlebar, Co Mayo.

A chara, – The controversy over the removal of the statues outside Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel indicates that the global debates around the decolonising of public heritage have finally reached Ireland’s shores. Leaving aside the issue of the legality of the Shelbourne’s actions, I was alarmed to see the kneejerk reaction in some corners of the media to any effort to call into question the prominent display of these statues.

Over the years, activists in Dublin have worked hard to defend the city’s Georgian heritage from the venality of private property developers. Conserving this part of our Dublin’s history was a crucial task but it does raise a broader issue about the freezing of our cityscapes in the late 19th century, a time when a very small class of wealthy men dictated the shape of public space. The absence of statues and streets dedicated to women is one consequence of this. The public display of art that exoticises and dehumanises Africans is another.

Public heritage is not sacrosanct. Nor is it the property of private enterprise or self-appointed gatekeepers. It belongs to all of us. This city has torn down and put up statues for centuries. As our society evolves and the population of the city diversifies, there is no reason our public space shouldn’t change too. We need to be open to a debate on this. – Yours, etc,

Dr DÓNAL HASSETT,

University College Cork.

Sir, – Alluding to the removal of the Shelbourne Hotel’s statues and the African slave trade, your correspondent suggests that a broader understanding of the history of slavery is needed (Letters, July 29th). Indeed. In this country our memorials happily celebrate St Patrick in his missionary role, but rather gloss over the part of the narrative which tells us it was Irish slave traders who brought him here originally. – Yours, etc,

PETER DENMAN,

Maynooth, Co Kildare.