Artist Biography: Thomas Farrell

These biographies are excerpted from Art and Architecture of Ireland Volume III: Sculpture 1600-2000, edited by Andrew Carpenter and Paula Murphy and published by the Royal Irish Academy.

FARRELL, THOMAS (1827–1900). 

By Paula Murphy

Farrell was one of the most famous sculptors in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was born in Dublin into a family of sculptors, whose practice was ultimately dependent on his name. Farrell was commissioned widely to execute portrait busts and monumental sculpture and was frequently favoured for nationalist commemorative work, for which his naturalistic style was particularly suited. Raised by a father who was emphatically a stone carver, Farrell was more comfortable working with stone and only occasionally carried out work in bronze. 

Thomas Farrell was the third of Terence Farrell’s (qv) sons, all of whom became sculptors. Their mother died when Thomas was twelve, and three years later, in 1842, he was enrolled as a student in the RDS Modelling School, the first of the Farrell boys to study outside the family workshop. Farrell was a prize-winning student and, at the award ceremony in 1843, the Lord Lieutenant, Earl de Grey, who was already familiar with Farrell’s father’s work, singled him out for special commendation. The student sculptor also won premiums at the RIAU in this period. Working on subject pieces in these early years of his career, he received favourable mention for such exhibits at the Cork and Dublin exhibitions in 1852 and 1853 respectively. These exhibitions were huge events and it was a significant achievement for Farrell to have his work noted. Later in life he was to regret the extent to which portraiture, which he considered less creative, dominated his output, to the neglect of ‘poetic or imaginative sculpture’ (Father Reffé Memorial Booklet, Dublin, 1896). 

Farrell had his first major breakthrough when he won the competition in 1853 to choose a sculptor for the commission to commemorate the recently deceased Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Rev. Daniel Murray (1768–1852) [104] in a monument for St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. That the eminent John Hogan, Christopher Moore and Joseph Kirk (qqv) were unsuccessful contestants for the commission is an indication of the young Farrell’s ability. This important commission for such a significant location launched his career and was the first of the many public monuments he would execute in the course of his life. Farrell acquitted himself well on this initial outing, producing a sculpture that is devotional in sentiment and neoclassical in style, revealing his awareness of the work of the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Strickland notes that Farrell visited Italy at this time to choose marble for the sculpture, thus affording himself the opportunity of direct contact with the source of his inspiration. Nearly thirty years later, in 1882, Farrell received another significant commission for the same church, to commemorate the first Irish cardinal, Paul Cullen (1803–78). The two monuments are as disparate as the personalities of the men depicted. Archbishop Murray is portrayed kneeling in prayer with attendant allegorical statues of Meekness and Temperance, while the cardinal is shown standing confidently on a circular pedestal that includes carved representations of the various Catholic institutions he founded. 

Thomas Farrell, Monument to Archbishop Daniel Murray, 1855, marble, St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Farrell lived and worked in Dublin, and his patronage, unlike that of his father, was exclusively for work in Ireland, as a result of which he rarely travelled outside the country. An attempt in the late 1850s to penetrate the English market, along with his peer and rival Joseph Kirk, was unsuccessful (Larcom Papers, Ms 7778, NLJ). At the time, Kirk and Farrell were completing colossal bronze panels for the Wellington Testimonial [474] in the Phoenix Park and encouraged the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, who took an active interest in the monument, to promote their work in London. But Farrell was a shy and diffident man and scarcely capable of such self-promotion. He failed to travel to London even to oversee the casting of his Wellington relief panel and was subsequently unhappy with the treatment of his Battle of Waterloo scene, which he thought had been ‘butchered’ in the foundry (Larcom Papers, ibid.). 

Farrell was very much a Dublin sculptor and was widely commissioned to carve public statuary for his native city. Statues of Catholic barrister Richard Lalor Sheil (1791–1851) and Catholic Lord Chancellor Thomas, Lord O’Hagan (1812–85) were commissioned for the Four Courts in 1884 and 1886 respectively (destroyed in 1922). Protestant nationalists William Smith O’Brien (1803–64) and Sir John Gray (1816–75) are commemorated in statues on O’Connell Street, Dublin, carved in 1867 and 1879 respectively. These are mostly conventional academic likenesses of important figures and are not particularly inspiring as art works. However, Farrell was capable of real expression, as was evident in the Sheil statue (illustrated in Gwynn, Daniel O’Connell, 1929), where he captured the lawyer’s energy and wild determination. His statue of Captain John McNeill Boyd (marble, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin), erected in 1864, is similarly vigorous in its approach. Farrell chose an assertive depiction of the captain in action, commanding the sea rescue off Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) pier in which he died in 1861. For a likeness of the heroic Boyd, Farrell had recourse to a carte de visite and discussions with the deceased’s sister (IT, 29 May 1862), while his artistic inspiration for the statue was derived from Thomas Kirk’s (qv) naval portrait of Sir Sidney Smith

Not all Farrell’s portrait statues are standing figures. Seated representations of surgeon William Dease (c. 1752–98) (1886, Royal College of Surgeons) and Arthur Edward Guinness, Lord Ardilaun (1840–1915) (1891, St Stephen’s Green) are accomplished sculptures in marble and bronze respectively. 

Farrell’s Boyd statue was often used as an example of his talent and never more so than in the long drawn out controversy in the mid-1860s over the choice of sculptor to execute a national monument to commemorate Daniel O’Connell. The demand that such an important commission be given to a local sculptor was frequently supported by laudatory comment on Farrell’s work. The recently completed statue of Boyd was hailed as ‘a triumph’ comparable ‘with anything of its kind in Europe’ (DB, 1 and 15 August 1864). Farrell was an unsuccessful participant in the O’Connell Monument competition, as were three of his brothers. His sketch model was admired where his brothers failed – for the balance of sculptural and architectural work. Farrell proposed a seated figure of O’Connell surmounting a pedestal with narrative relief scenes and seated allegories of Erin, Law, Patriotism and Eloquence. Four ‘spirited’ semi-reclining figures positioned on radiating sub-pedestals represented Liberty in its different guises (DB, 15 August 1865). In 1865, when the commission was offered to John Henry Foley (qv), continuing opposition encouraged the committee to suggest that local sculptors might carve peripheral figures on the monument. Farrell rejected this proposal, as, indeed, did Foley (Ms Ch. 6/2, Dublin City Library and Archives). 

If, like most nineteenth-century sculptors, portraiture was the mainstay of Farrell’s practice, commissions for bust portraits were inevitably more regular than for public statuary. Acknowledged to have a ‘command over facial expression’ (IT, 5 July 1900), Farrell carved busts of men and women from many different walks of life. When the opportunity arose, he worked from life, but, since many of his busts were posthumous, he was often obliged to work from death masks, painted portraits and occasionally from photographs. By way of acute observation and excellent craftsmanship, Farrell was capable of creating an admirable likeness. However, only occasional glimpses of character appear such as, for example, in his bust of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–90) (marble, RHA, 1892, University Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin), who is portrayed with weary and austere aloofness, while a dogged and vigorous expression is apparent in the portrait of the geologist Sir Richard Griffith (1784–1878) (marble, RDS). A tendency to employ a full, rather than a truncated bust, gave Farrell the opportunity to explore the arrangement of à l’antique drapery or contemporary costume about the torso and, in the case of female busts, to add a touch of lacework or broderie anglaise. Female busts, including those of Jane, Countess of Granard (1840–72) (marble, RHA, 1873, Castleforbes, Co. Longford) and co-founder of the Irish Sisters of Charity, Anna Maria O’Brien (1785–1871) (plaster, Convent of Sisters of Charity, Stanhope Street, Dublin), have little finesse in their carving, which suggests that Farrell was more comfortable with the male figure. 

Religion and nationalism played a significant role in Farrell’s patronage and he received many commissions for memorial work for Glasnevin Cemetery in the 1880s. Having already carved the statue of Smith O’Brien, it is unsurprising that, in 1883, Farrell was commissioned by the National Monuments Committee of the Young Irelanders Society to commemorate Terence Bellew McManus and John O’Mahony and several members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The monument [105], comprising representations of Erin, Fidelity and Patriotism, is heroic and dignified. However, the controversial nature of the inscription on the monument caused a considerable delay in its installation, which did not take place until more than thirty years after Farrell’s death. The pedestal for this and many other monuments is signed ‘Farrell and Son’. These relations of Thomas, who established a stone-yard at the gates of Glasnevin Cemetery in 1837, frequently invited him and his brothers to carry out the fine artwork on their monuments. Other works by Farrell in the cemetery include a statue of the actor Barry Sullivan (1821–91) in his favourite role as Hamlet, a colossal bust of Sir John Gray on a carved pedestal, and a graceful interpretation of the flight of the soul, commemorating the wife of the Lord Chief Baron, Ellen Palles (1839–85). A substantial monument near the entrance to the cemetery, dedicated to Cardinal Edward McCabe (1816–85), was erected in 1887. 

105. Thomas Farrell, Monument to Young Irelanders and Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1883–93, marble, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Farrell commemorates McCabe in a recumbent effigy positioned under an elaborate canopy designed by architect George Coppinger Ashlin. Farrell had already employed the recumbent design for his monument commemorating Archbishop Richard Whately (1787–1863) in St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1865 [311]. 

The concentration on work for Dublin did not entirely exclude patronage for Farrell in other parts of Ireland, but these sculptures are few and far between. Statues of Catholic activist William Burke (d. 1834) and Archbishop John MacHale (1791– 1881) were commissioned for the grounds of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Tuam, Co. Galway. The Burke statue was thought to be so successful that it was described as expressing ‘an entire biographical memoir’ when the model was exhibited at the RHA in 1874 (IT, 1 May 1874). In Wexford, Canon Roche (1801–83) is commemorated in a statue by Farrell in the grounds of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, known as Cathedral Square. Roche was renowned for the building of twin churches in the city and his statue was admired locally as ‘a sermon in stone’ (Wexford Independent, 19 March 1887). Memorial carvings incorporating narrative relief scenes or bust portraits can also be encountered in a small number of churches outside Dublin, notably in St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry and in St Patrick’s (C of I) Cathedral, Armagh. 

An unusual commission for Farrell towards the end of his career was for lifesize subject groups to be placed on the roofline of the new Museum of Science and Art in Kildare Street, Dublin. He exhibited models for the sculptures at the RHA in 1889 and 1890. The groups depicting Poetry, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture were in place when the building was opened in 1890. Although still visible in their lofty position in early photographs of the building, the sculptures were no longer in place by 1909, having been removed because the soft stone in which they were carved had begun to disintegrate. 

Farrell was hugely respected throughout his career and particularly in Dublin. Not outgoing by nature, he never married and at the end of his life he and his remaining unmarried brothers were living with their widowed sister, Maria Jones, in Redesdale, a substantial property in Stillorgan on the outskirts of the city, which had been owned by Farrell’s brother-in-law. Always busy, when he was not working in his studio, Farrell was engaged in an endless round of committee work for the Irish Art Union, the Dublin Exhibitions, the NGI and most particularly the RHA. Full membership of the Academy in 1860 led to the holding of several positions within that body, before Farrell was elected its first and only sculptor president in 1893. He was knighted the following year. 

Throughout his career Farrell was a constant exhibitor at the RHA, where his work regularly received praise from the critics. Described as ‘esteemed and brilliant’ in a review of work exhibited just four months before he died, in fact by then Farrell’s sculpture was outdated. Conservative critics were respectfully acknowledging work from the hand of the president of the RHA and not making direct comparison with that of the next generation of sculptors. A late statue of the organist and professor of music Sir Robert Stewart (1825–94) for Leinster Lawn, while incorporating a real likeness of the man, is unimaginative and lacking in finesse. Endless requirements on the part of the committee, for whom he made three different sketch models (Ms 23 H46, RIA), will certainly have inhibited Farrell’s artistic freedom. Completed and unveiled in 1898, the statue might have been carved fifty years earlier. 

The Stewart portrait was one of Farrell’s last commissions. Somewhat unusually, in this instance, several sculptors were invited to submit estimates for the work, rather than designs. Farrell priced the statue and pedestal at £1,250, but eventually agreed to carry out this ‘labour of love’ for £1,000 (Ms 23 H46, RIA). Sculptors were mostly inadequately remunerated in the nineteenth century and Farrell, at the end of a successful career, found himself in poor financial circumstances. Even in his seemingly lofty position as president of the RHA, he had to beg advance payment from the Stewart Monument committee to enable him to proceed with the work. And in the aftermath of his death, the remaining members of his family were so destitute that they were obliged to seek financial support from various artistic bodies (Weekly Irish Times, 28 September 1901). 

Thomas Farrell remained diffident in death, having requested that information of his demise, which took place on 2 July 1900, would not be made public for three days. The RHA was aggrieved that this final request of their late president prevented them from displaying publicly ‘the honour and esteem in which they held him’ (IB, 1 August 1900). 

SELECTED READING Strickland; Crookshank, 1984; Potterton; Hill, 1998; Paula Murphy, ‘Thomas Farrell, Sculptor’, IAR, 9 (1993), 196–207; Roscoe; Murphy, 2010.