John Henry Foley was probably the most influential sculptor in Irish history. His best-known Irish works include the Daniel O’Connell monument on O’Connell Street and the troika of Grattan, Goldsmith and Burke outside Trinity College. Queen Victoria personally requested Foley create the statue of her beloved Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial in London. When Foley died, she decreed that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, an extraordinary honour for a man born into relative poverty in Dublin’s northside, writes RAY CLEERE
Best known for his heroic and monumental statues, including that of Daniel O’Connell (‘The Liberator’) on O’Connell, in Dublin, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke on the grounds of Trinity College, Dublin, and Henry Gratton on College Green, Dublin, John Henry Foley was the first major figure in Irish sculpture.
Foley was born at number 6 Montgomery Street, in Dublin, 200 years ago, on May 24th, 1818, and was baptised on the following June 8th in St. Thomas’s Church. His father, Jesse Foley, who was a native of Winchester, had settled early in life in Dublin where he was employed in a glass manufactory, and later owned a grocer’s shop in Mecklenbury Street.
On February 28th, 1812, Jesse Foley married Elizabeth Byrne. Their second son, John Henry Foley, received but a slender education, and such as he afterwards acquired was through his own industry and love of reading.
Influenced by the example of his older brother, Edward, who had adopted sculpture as a profession, Foley showed great talent at an early age and, aged 13, in 1831, he began to study modelling, architectural drawing, studies of the human form and ornamental design at the Royal Dublin Society, where he won several prizes, including the principal medal in 1833.
In March 1834, and then aged 17, he left Dublin and joined his brother Edward in London. In the following year, 1835, he became a student of the Royal Academy where he devoted himself entirely to sculpture. He won the large silver medal and in 1839, he exhibited in the Royal Academy his ‘Death of Abel’ and ‘Innocence’, both of which attracted attention.
His group of ‘Ino and Bacchus’, exhibited in 1840, added to his growing reputation and was commissioned by Lord Ellesmere to be executed in marble for his collection at Bridgewater House.
That success was quickly followed by other exhibits including ‘Lear and Cordelia’ and ‘Death and Lear’ (both 1841); ‘Venus Rescuing Aeneas’ and ‘The Houseless Wanderer’ (both 1842) and ‘Prospero and Miranda’ (1843).