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John Henry Foley – Sculptor of the Empire

Sculptor of the Empire

I was sitting under the Daniel O’Connell Monument in Dublin one summer morning about 3am and my gaze wandered up to the edifice above me. There stood Daniel in all his swagger and all these interesting characters below him. I did not know then the story about the monument and how it came about, but the next day I started researching.  I found out that the sculptor was John Henry Foley and that he was the most powerful sculptor of public statuary in his day. That he was born in Dublin, learned his craft at the Royal Dublin Society, and at a very young age was noted for his genius. As his fame grew his work was being erected  all over the British Empire, in particular Britain, Ireland and India. He became a personal friend of Queen Victoria and her husband Albert. He created Albert and Asia for the Albert Memorial in London. He was working on Albert at the same time as Daniel O’Connell, so it must have been strange to see both these works representing different ideologies, present in the same studio. There is a dark side to the documentary. Long after Foley died a lot his work became contentious because of his association with the Empire. The IRA attacked Lord Gough in the Phoenix Park. Ireland’s most famous Equestrian statue was blown up, later restored by the Irish Government and then smuggled out of Ireland. Gough now stands forlorn in Chillingham Castle. Robert Guinness who arranged the transfer has stated “Ireland can have it back anytime but they must taker the rider as well as the horse”. There is a hilarious moment in the film where Senator David Norris reads ‘The Ballad of Gough’ by Vincent Caprani. Another oddity is how Foley’s Dublin statue of Prince Albert was hidden in the car park of Dail Eireann, with specially planted trees concealing him, for fear of attack by republicans. Still, Foley has more works on display in Ireland than any other artist. Father Matthew in Cork, Benjamin Guinness in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke in Trinity College, and Edmund Burke outside Ireland’s old Parliament on College Green. India took a different response than Ireland to it’s Empire statues. After independence they rounded up all the statuary imposed on them and moved them to sculptural graveyards. I discovered great archive of this and used it for the film. India made one exception and released Foley’s statue of Outram from captivity. This statue of Outram on his horse was so loved by the people of Calcutta that by public pressure he was moved to the Victoria museum and is now enjoyed for the art rather than the symbol. The motivation for the film started on that summer night many years ago and the result, I hope, is a challenge to us all, of finding a way of preserving our past heritage, good or bad, so that future generations can learn their own history.

Loopline