Brushing Up: Have You Ever Spotted Dublin's Last Imperial Statue?

Even the guards who stand, metres away, outside the Department of the Taoiseach haven’t clocked the memorial, the last of its kind in the city.

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss.

But off Merrion Street Upper, with the Natural History Museum to the left and through the fence of the Department of the Taoiseach stands a proud bronze of Prince Albert, of the house Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Consort of the United Kingdom and beloved husband of Queen Victoria.

The work depicts Albert atop a plinth, which, as Jacquie Moore of the Office of Public Works (OPW) notes, “consists of four youths – a shepherd, an artist, a tradesman and an explorer – symbolising Albert’s various interests: agriculture, arts, industry and science”.

Unveiled in 1871, the memorial was the work of John Henry Foley (1818-1874), who around the same time was commissioned to complete the Prince Albert statue for the ostentatious Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, London.

The granite and bronze of the sculpture are similar to those often used in Foley’s other city-centre works in Dublin, such as the monumental political leader Daniel O’Connell and the gesticulating campaigner Henry Grattan on College Green.

Politicians and Poets

As we enter this centenary year, it may sober the mind to consider our relationship with those we choose to commemorate and those we would rather forget. Public artwork need not be consistently charged with the political, yet, undeniably, for Dubliners, it often has been.

It’s hard to imagine the statue of Prince Albert placed elsewhere in the city, certainly in a conspicuous location.

Dublin has a chequered history with its monuments and statues erected to remember those “Great” Britons who ruled, or had recently passed, when their memorials, testimonials and commemorations were first erected.

“Such monuments, in their choice of style, scale and position, have considerable propagandist strength, and a silent statuesque likeness of a particular individual enables the continued exertion of power,” says Professor Paula Murphy of University College Dublin.

Many of the men and women today immortalised in bronze or stone on Dublin’s busy thoroughfares were either critical to the progress of Irish autonomy and independence — think Grattan, or politician Charles Stewart Parnell, or revolutionary Constance Markievicz — or were poets, thinkers and artists, like Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and Thomas Moore.

There’s little left of the imperial in the capital’s public sculpture. Although many of those commemorated were born under British rule, they were not seen to go against the progression of an ever-increasing demand for independence or to represent Britain’s colonialism across the globe.

Those who were fell foul of the bomb.

The Fallen

In May 1937, the statue commemorating King George II, which had been erected in 1758, was destroyed by an explosion, ending his tenure in St Stephen’s Green.

In 1946, after seeing off several assassination attempts and relocations, the equestrian monument to King William of Orange, which had been put up in 1701, was destroyed following another explosion.

Two of John Henry Foley’s statues met the same rubble-end some years later.

In 1958, Foley’s statue from 1870 which depicted George William Frederick Howard, the Seventh Earl of Carlisle, was blown clean off its pedestal in the Phoenix Park.

The previous year, Foley’s equestrian monument to Lord Gough dating back to 1880, and regarded as one of the finest sculptures in the city, was badly damaged in another explosion. It was then placed in storage for many years. It now sits in Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, having been purchased from the state in 1986.

In 1966, as the city was charged with commemorative fervour for the Rising’s fiftieth anniversary, a handful of Dubliners planted explosives at the base of Nelson’s Pillar, pulverising the top half of the monument along with Horatio himself, and causing extensive damage to the surrounding area.

It’s surprising then, given the reckless and continued campaign of vandalism, that Albert has survived into 2016.

The original proposed site for the statue, on College Green, was met with such opposition that eventually it was decided Leinster Lawn would accommodate the Prince. Placed behind cast-iron railings, he’s had a safe time of it ever since.

Wellington and the Queen

Albert himself was instrumental in the organisation of the first Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and then in 1853 he attended the Great Industrial Exhibition, which took place on Leinster Lawn.

The statue originally held a more central position within the grounds. It was banished to the corner in 1923 in order to make way for the erection of the cenotaph commemorating the recently deceased Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.

The only other overtly imperial monument within the city is the Wellington Testimonial, located in the Phoenix Park.

This work is more “formal” than “representational”, and therefore not as overt a reminder of British rule. However, along with Prince Albert, it is amongst the lucky ones to have escaped the post-independence republican backlash.

Similarly, the Queen herself made a lucky escape. Erected in 1908 on the front lawn of Leinster House, the statue of Queen Victoria, described by UCD’s Murphy as a “neo-Baroque extravaganza”, was eventually dismantled in the late 1940s. Initially housed in storage in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the statue was donated to Australia in 1987. It now sits proudly outside the QVB building in Sydney’s city centre.

Either through vandalism or removal, the imperial monument has all but disappeared from Dublin’s major streets. The government, filled with the anticipation of the forthcoming commemoration, are busily engaged within their departments. It’s curious then that they now offer the ultimate sanctuary to one of the last surviving sculpted reminders of a Dublin under imperial rule.

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Author:

Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

Reader responses

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Pamela McQueen
at 6 January 2016 at 10:37

Hi Conal
Sometimes the art is also about the artist Henry Foley was a Dublin man born and reared off Talbot Street in fact the street was in the recent regeneration was named after him.
He was , though I am no expert, a celebrated artist and rose from humble start in life to royal commission a massive feat in the times he lived.
Unfortunately for his legacy in the early republic that his surviving works of monarchs were obviously not well received.

Cónal Thomas
at 6 January 2016 at 15:19

Hi Pamela,
Thanks for your comment. It does seem a shame that Foley’s works were targeted because of their subject matter. It is indeed interesting that he rose through the ranks to become one of the most renowned sculptors of the time although he was notoriously slow in producing the finished piece much to the annoyance, I’m sure, of those who commissioned his work.
All the best, Cónal.

Donal Lowry
at 18 December 2016 at 11:30

Not quite the last, perhaps. Not far away from Albert in Merrion Street outside the Natural History Museum is the statue of Surgeon-General Thomas Parkes, explorer and soldier, the first European to see the Mountains of the Moon, who fought at Kharthoum in the attempt to rescue General Gordon. Surely this is an even more explicitly “imperial” statue than that of Albert! [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tho…

Peter Boyle
at 31 August 2018 at 11:59

I think you’ll find that the King William III statue in College Green was blown up in an explosion in 1928, not in 1946.

Best regards

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