On a pedestal – An Irishman’s Diary on the sculptor John Henry Foley
John Henry Foley in 1863. Photograph: Ernest Edwards
The O’Connell monument and those of Henry Grattan on College Green and Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith in front of Trinity College are some of the finest pieces of public sculpture in Dublin city. The man who created them, John Henry Foley, was born 200 years ago on May 24th. He was the first major Irish sculptor, and it is all the more remarkable that he became so given that he “received but a slender education, and such as he afterwards acquired was through his own industry and love of reading”, according to Walter Strickland’s Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913).
He was born in Montgomery Street in Dublin, which has since been renamed Foley Street in his honour. His father, originally from Winchester, worked as a glassblower and later had a grocer shop on nearby Mecklenburg (now Railway) Street. His mother, Eliza Schrowder Byrne, was a stepdaughter of Benjamin Schrowder, a sculptor who worked on Gandon’s Custom House and who was Foley’s first teacher.
At the young age of 13, Foley began studying modelling and drawing at the Royal Dublin Society schools, where his ability won him many prizes. At 17, he went to study at the Royal Academy in London, specialising in sculpture.
Commissions began to flow in and he found himself among the foremost of sculptors in the UK; he was made an associate, in 1849, and a full member, in 1858, of the Royal Academy
There he continued to win awards and in 1839 exhibited his Death of Abel and Innocence, and Ino and Bacchus the following year, which was commissioned by Lord Ellesmere.
Major success followed in 1844 when he sent Youth at a Stream to a competition at Westminster Hall for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament. As a result, he was commissioned to do statues of politicians John Hampden and John Selden for St Stephen’s Hall. Commissions now began to flow in and he found himself among the foremost of sculptors in the UK; he was made an associate, in 1849, and a full member, in 1858, of the Royal Academy. He exhibited on a number of occasions at the Royal Hibernian Academy, which gave him membership in 1861.
Strickland wrote of his statues in St Stephen’s Hall, Westminster and his equestrian statues Lord Hardinge and Sir James Outram (both in Calcutta) that they were “works, which in their extraordinary vigour, originality and freshness of conception, had not been approached before by any English sculptor”.
He established his studio and home at Osnaburgh Street in London, where he was joined by two of his sisters after the death of their mother. Following the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the city’s corporation decided to decorate the Egyptian Hall in the Mansion House, and Foley was commissioned to sculpt Caractacus and Egeria.
Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, died in 1861 and Foley was chosen to sculpt one of the four large groups, each representing a continent, at the corners of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens; he created the group known as Asia.
Foremost among his Dublin creations would be the statues of Oliver Goldsmith (unveiled in 1864) and Edmund Burke (unveiled in 1868)
Victoria had visited his studio a number of times and in 1867 he was commissioned to do the bronze statue of Albert himself, which was to form the centre of the memorial.
In the event, he did not live long enough to complete it and his pupil, Thomas Brock, did so.
Although he spent most of his life in London, he was commissioned to do some major works in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland.
Foremost among his Dublin creations would be the statues of Oliver Goldsmith (unveiled in 1864) and Edmund Burke (unveiled in 1868), in front of Trinity College, and that of Henry Grattan on College Green (unveiled posthumously in 1876).
In 1866, he was commissioned to execute the monument to Daniel O’Connell. He had finished the sketch models and was working on the full-size clay models when his premature death in August 1874 prevented him from completing “what he had looked forward to as the crowning work of his career” (Strickland). Thomas Brock again completed this work.
Among Foley’s other statues in Ireland are Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness (outside St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin), Rev Theobald Mathew (Patrick Street, Cork), the 3rd Earl of Rosse (St John’s Place, Birr, Co Offaly) and Dr William Stokes (Royal College of Physicians, Dublin).
“In his work as a sculptor Foley was, at his best, superior to any of his contemporaries,” art historian Walter Strickland believed, because his works “show a vitality, a knowledge and sense of structure and movement, and a decorative feeling, which were absent in the cold and lifeless works of his contemporaries.”
His will provided for his widow and two unmarried sisters and he left the bulk of his property to the Artists’ Benevolent Fund. He left his casts to the Royal Dublin Society and the collection is now in the National Museum in Kildare Street.