Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Foley's Asia” by Ronan Sheehan (1999, The Lilliput Press)

Magill (October 2006)

See here for a chronology of Foley's life.

Se Merry Doyle's 2008 documentary 'John Henry Foley - Sculptor of the Empire' premiered at the 20th Galway Film Fleadh and was launched in the National Museum of Ireland. The film, which has already aired twice on TG4, was short-listed for the Best Documentary BIFF Award at the 2008 Magners Irish Film Festival in Boston. Examining the life and works of the controversial Victorian sculptor, Turtle Bunbury was closely involved as both historical researcher and co-scriptwriter. Turtle and Sé also teamed up in 2018 to host an afternoon of talks about Foley at Dublin Castle to mark the bicentenary of the sculptor's birth. Foley's best known works include the Albert Memorial in London, Sir James Outram in Calcutta and various statues commemorating Daniel O'Connell, Lord Gough, Henry Grattan, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith in Dublin.

Daniel O'Connell took 29 bullets during the Easter Rising, six of them in the head. He was lucky to survive. There was nothing Burke, Goldsmith or Grattan could do when the Sherwood Foresters marched past them that same afternoon. They were as powerless then as they were ten years later when the boys came out to their neighbour William of Orange and blew him clean off his horse.

Father Theobald Matthew saw his share when the Black and Tans torched Cork City one miserable December afternoon in 1920. The Apostle of Temperance held his hands out uselessly as the whiskey-swilling soldiers ran amok down Patrick Street.

Lord Dunkillen was taken entirely unawares when an angry crowd topped him from his perch in Eyre Square and hurled him into Galway Bay. Talk about cement slippers. Dunkillen's were entirely bronze. "Bronze?" exclaimed a passer by. "But he's got to be worth a fortune!" And so his lordship was dredged up again and brought to a farrier and melted down. His fate remains unknown although perhaps, like Dutch King Billy, his melted thumbs provided useful plugs for the city's waterways.

Such is the lot of a redundant statue. One day, parping pigeon's aside, everything is perfectly manageable and stoic. The next, one is heading face first for the pedestal surrounded by chanting lunatics. Although sometimes one is surrounded by nobody at all. Like those nights when the ghosts popped out to see Lord Gough in Phoenix Park, hacked off his head with a carving knife and strapped a garland of gelignite around his trusty steed's privates for good measure. Similar fates would befall HM George II, the Lords Carlisle and Eglinton, and, of course, Horatio Nelson. Queen Victoria headed to Australia. Her husband Albert and the rest of their ilk decided to lie low.

In a line up of famous Dubliners, the name John Henry Foley does not score many recognition points. And yet, as Ronan Sheehan shows in his extraordinary book, "Foley's Asia" (Lilliput), this lanky Victorian gent with the Buffalo Bill moustache was one of the most gifted sculptors the world has ever known. Indeed, he created most of the Victorian statues alluded to above.

The closest John Henry Foley has yet got to civic recognition in Dublin was the renaming of the street where he grew up - formerly Montgomery Street, now Foley Street. He was born in 1818, second son of a glass-blower, Jesse Foley, and his Wicklow-born wife, Eliza Byrne. It was Eliza's step-grandfather, a London sculptor called Benjamin Schrwoder, who had the greatest influence on the Foley child. Schrowder was one of the master craftsman who carved the miscellaneous deities and other statues that adorn their façade of the Custom House and Four Courts. As private commissions subsequently came in to Schrowder's Montgomery Street workshop, so young John Foley and his brother Edward watched eagerly as their silvery-locked tribal elder set to work with his chisel.

In time both the Foley brothers made their way to London and secured apprenticeships with the Hanoverian sculptor, William Behnes. John, the younger of the boys, had the upper hand for he had trained under John Smyth at the Sculpture School of the Royal Dublin Society in Leinster House. There he proved himself a cut above, coming top of the class in every subject. Behnes recognized the boy's genius and helped secure him a trial for the schools of London's Royal Academy, the greatest art institution of its day. Foley created a work called "The Death of Abel" that so impressed the Academy he was given a ten year scholarship.

Foley's major breakthrough came in 1844 when Prince Albert, that earnest, art-loving consort, orchestrated a competition for sculptors from across the world. At stake was the opportunity to design the statues that would grace Pugin's all new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Three sculptors were chosen and one of these was young Foley. As Ireland braced itself for famine, so Foley mounted the marble and set to work shaping life-size statues of two opposing English Civil War leaders. Unveiled at the House of Lords in 1847, this pair of statues - Hampden and Selden - marked Foley's entrance to the big time.

As great breaks go, Foley's wasn't necessarily the most exciting. Indeed, perhaps the reason so little is known of Foley is because he's such a difficult man to pin anything untoward upon. In the few surviving records of his character, he comes across as a dutiful son, a loving husband, a conscientious friend and a seriously diligent client. Indeed, if he had any major fault it was his inability to decline whenever anyone, public or private, offered him a commission. Between 1840 and his death in 1874, he made at least twenty-two ideal figures, thirty-four busts, a dozen funerary monuments and over forty full-length statues, four of them equestrian. In each instance, Foley's genius shone through.

Such a workload left him in some curious predicaments from a political point of view. For instance, at the time of his premature death in 1874, his Islington studio was working on monuments to an Irish nationalist icon (O'Connell), a shipping magnate from Gujarat (Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia), the Queen's late husband (Prince Albert), a military general who conquered the Punjab (Gough), and the leader of the Confederates during the US Civil War (Stonewall Jackson).

Foley was an Irishman quite willing to work within the broader spectrum of the British Empire - and to derive maximum benefits thereof. Imperialism was the capitalism of its day and if you didn't play, you didn't win. One of the biggest winners was the East India Company, arguably the first great multi-national. By the 1860s, John Henry Foley was one of the most visible definers of imperialism in India. His magnificent equestrian statues of Sir James Outram and Viscount Hardinge dominated Calcutta in the wake of the Indian Mutiny.

In "Foley's Asia", Sheehan provides a series of entertaining and lucid vignettes about these two men and the other heroes of British India who Foley immortalized in marble. He had no qualms about designing statues to such controversial figures. Take John Nicholson, for instance. One evening shortly before he died storming Delhi in 1857, the fearsome Dubliner strolled into dinner saying, "I am sorry to have kept you waiting, gentlemen, but I have been hanging your cooks." The luckless chefs had been caught poisoning the soup with aconite. Likewise, Sir Hugh Gough may have been a much-loved gentleman but the gung-ho General from Limerick was also responsible for annihilating the Sikhs in 1849

For a man who couldn't say no, Foley's reluctance to have anything to do with the Daniel O'Connell monument was decidedly uncharacteristic. When Dublin Corporation launched a design contest for the project, Foley didn't enter. It was only after the Corporation failed to select a winner and appealed to him personally that he drummed up any interest. Even then he allowed the project to drag on so that he never saw it completed. It was left to his apprentice Thomas Brock to complete the present monument.

Foley's attitude to the O'Connell Monument is one of the themes explored in a documentary from Loopline Films, funded by TG4 and BCI and first broadcast in the summer of 2008. "John Henry Foley - Sculptor of the Empire" is directed by Se Merry Doyle as a follow up to "James Gandon - A Life", his absorbing documentary on the architect of the Custom House. I worked with Se and Helen Bergin on the historical research, and I subsequently co-wrote the script.

Doyle's documentary took him to India where there are many who still regard "Mister Foli" as an out and out genius. Fortunately, with the collapse of the imperial world, the Indians tended to relocate his "British" statues to discreet positions rather than destroy them outright. Hardinge was sent back to a descendents' garden in Cambridge. The Outram masterpiece fared somewhat better and, after a few years penitentiary in a sculptural graveyard, was resurrected outside Victoria House in Calcutta.

John Foley was working on the "Asia" group for London's Albert Memorial when he learned of the death of Marochetti, the Italian sculptor charged with designing the statue of Prince Albert himself. The grieving Queen Victoria requested that Foley take over on "Albert" with an assurance that she would personally cover all his costs. Ever the workaholic, Foley is said to have caught pleurisy while seated on the elephant, modeling the voluptuous breasts of Asia herself. In August 1874, he collapsed at a wedding and died shortly afterwards. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

Gough, Carlisle and Dunkillen may be gone but Foley lives on through his works, of which there are still more than a dozen in Ireland. Dublin city center is still dominated by Burke, Goldsmith, Grattan and O'Connell. Overlooking the People's Park at St. Patrick's Cathedral stands the philanthropist Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness. In the hall of the Royal College of Physicians, a troika of past Presidents gaze sternly as younger surgeons pass before them. In the center of Birr, Lord Rosse twiddles his telescope. Foley has an ability to appear when least expected.

ISBN: 781901 866360