Foley's work stands the test of time bombs
There are strange things done from twelve to one /In the Hollow at Phaynix Park, / There's maidens mobbed and gentlemen robbed / In the bushes after dark; / But the strangest of all within human recall / Concerns the statue of Gough, / 'twas a terrible fact, and a most wicked act, / For his bollix they tried to blow off! / 'Neath the horse's big pr**k a dynamite stick / Some gallant "hayro" did place, / For the cause of our land, with a match in his hand / Bravely the foe he did face; / Then without showing fear - and standing well clear - / He expected to blow up the pair / But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers / And he made the poor stallion a mare!
The Ballad of Gough by Vincent Caprani (b.1934) tells the story of how a statue of Field Marshall Gough was blown up by Republicans in 1957. The monument, however, was a superb piece of art, rated as one of the best equestrian statues in the world, but also a symbol of a hated imperial past. Ironically, both the subject and the sculptor were Irish. Gough, born in Limerick, made his career as a British Army officer. The sculptor was John Henry Foley (1818-1874), best known for the Daniel O'Connell monument on Dublin's O'Connell Street.
Sé Merry Doyle's 2008 documentary John Henry Foley - Sculptor Of The Empire described how the statue of Gough was first decapitated (the horse's head was found in the Liffey and replaced) and then, after several attempts, blown up. The State sold the remains to Robert Guinness on condition that he took it out of the country, and the restored statue is now in glorious isolation in Chillingham Castle in Northumberland.
In the documentary, the actor Páraic Breathnach tells how Foley's statue of Lord Dunkellin, a hated symbol of landlordism, was torn from its plinth in Galway's Eyre Square by the Town Tenants League in 1922. The sculpture was dragged down the street and pushed off the end of the pier while the band played the then popular tune, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. There's a medium-sized bronze sculpture by Foley coming up for auction at Whyte's Irish and International Art Sale next week (Lot 109: est. €3,000 to €5,000). It shows a naked girl playing with a child, a pleasing Victorian rendition of a scene from Classical mythology: Ino, Queen of Thebes, teasing her infant nephew Bacchus with a bunch of grapes.
The bronze piece (50cm long) is a smaller version of a full-scale sculpture, the type that sculptors still produce to turn a few bob. The most interesting thing about it is just how famous the sculptor was.
Foley was a Dubliner, born on Montgomery Street (aptly now Foley Street). His father was a glassblower and his step-grandfather a sculptor who had come to Ireland from England to work on the carvings around the Customs House. The young Foley studied art at the Royal Dublin Society and, at the age of 16, went to London where he won a studentship to the Royal Academy.
From here, Foley's career took off. From an artistic point of view, his work was superb. It also came at a time when sculpture, especially commemorative statues, were highly fashionable. He became the foremost sculptor of the British Empire, with prominent works in colonies around the world, including his native Ireland. It is traditional for a new regime to tear down the symbols of the old one and this is exactly what happened to many of Foley's sculptures. The trio of Grattan, Goldsmith and Burke remain outside Trinity College, Dublin, likewise the Father Matthew monument in Cork, but others have gone. A maquette for the sculpture of Oliver Goldsmith (47cm high) sold at Whyte's for €10,000 in May 2018.
When Foley died, he left two sculptures in his studio. One was of Prince Albert, the gilded centrepiece of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London. Foley also sculpted the allegorical group representing Asia - it's a magnificent ensemble centred around an elephant - and apparently caught his death from long hours in the wet clay.
The other was Daniel O'Connell. Foley rated the O'Connell monument as the most important work of his career. It was the first time that an Irish Catholic had been commemorated in this way and the monument stood in contrast to the plethora of imperialist statues on Dublin's streets. It includes a self-portrait of Foley as a craftsman, carrying the tools of his trade.
"We were asked to do an insurance valuation of the Daniel O'Connell statue as part of the metro plans," says Ian Whyte, auctioneer. Apart from the material cost of rebuilding the statue, the auctioneers had to calculate the potential cost of hiring an artist whose reputation was the equivalent of that of John Henry Foley. "We did some research and we realised that the best match was Anthony Gormley," Whyte explains. "Foley would have been the most famous sculptor in the world at the time."
Whyte's auction of Irish & International Art takes place in the RDS, Dublin, on Monday, September 16 at 6pm. The sale includes the Butler Gallery Benefit Auction of Contemporary Art in aid of the Butler Gallery's move to its new venue, Evan's Home, Kilkenny City, in spring 2020.