By Philip Ward-Jackson, Marjorie Trusted and Paula Murphy

The sculpted portrait in Ireland is, in European terms, a comparatively late arrival, a fact that in no way diminishes its historical significance. This applies to the period before 1917, whether it is considered within the integral context of British sculpture as a whole, or as a phenomenon in its own right. Gravitating between the extreme subservience of the assistant carver in the employ of a London-based master (Sebastian Gahagan and James Heffernan (qqv)) and the respected status implied by honorary membership of the RHA, won largely through the immortalization in artistic form of Irish worthies (Christopher Moore (qv)), Irish portraiture is inevitably, given the political circumstances of that time, a thing of more or less visibility, but even at its least visible highly esteemed in its time. Portraiture usually dominated output in the sculptor’s workshop. After the unveiling of a portrait bust in Blackrock College in 1896, Thomas Farrell proposed that it was the desire to remember the departed that ‘kept the sculptor’s art from being extinguished in Ireland’ (Father Reffé Memorial Booklet, Dublin, 1896).

In 1872, the director of the Dublin National Gallery, Henry Doyle, applied to the Treasury in London for financial assistance in setting up an Irish national portrait gallery, for which he was already building up a foundation collection. The money was refused, on the grounds that Irish subjects were included in the London National Portrait Gallery collection, which at the time did not even have its own separate premises. Consequently, the Irish national portrait collection remained within the walls of the parent institution. As it existed in the 1870s, it appears to have consisted entirely of paintings, drawings and prints. Significant sculpted portraits of Irish subjects were subsequently to be acquired for the collection, and although there was never to be a self-contained national pantheon, these and other examples can be adduced as evidence that sculpture played a significant part in establishing a national identity.

The portraits included on early seventeenth-century Irish tombs are imported products and make no claim to verisimilitude. The development of a genuinely Irish school of portrait sculpture can be traced through the historic sculpture collection of TCD, in particular its large series of library busts. Busts of worthies in libraries were known to have existed in antiquity, and in the seventeenth century ambitious attempts to recreate such environments became apparent. By the end of the century the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève in Paris housed a series of twenty-six busts, including ancient authors, members of the royal household, and other distinguished modern personages. For Trinity College Library in Cambridge, completed in 1695, Christopher Wren originally intended to have small statues of worthies on the ends of his book stacks, commissioned cheaply from Flemish workshops, but – probably for financial reasons – only a limited number of busts was commissioned from Grinling Gibbons while the library was being built. Certainly in its original form, the sculptural décor of the interior remained modest until the mid-eighteenth century. The initiative at Trinity College Dublin actually preceded and appears to have set an example for the more ample deployment of sculpture soon to be found at Trinity College Cambridge and in the Codrington Library of All Souls College Oxford.

The first of the busts in TCD were imports from the work-shops of Peter Scheemakers and Louis-François Roubiliac. These were a rather ‘off the hook’ series of ancient and modern worthies, produced in the mid-1740s, paid for from a bequest made specifically for the purpose by Dr Claudius Gilbert, Vice-Provost and professor of Divinity at the college [310]. Two busts in the series were of Irishmen: Robert Boyle, the scientist, and James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, but these were no more artistically distinguished than their companions. A new standard was set with the arrival of Roubiliac’s bust of Jonathan Swift [465], commissioned in 1745. Although derived from a portrait by Charles Jervas, the sculptor had succeeded in conveying an impression of intellectual intensity in his subject. On its arrival, it was greeted with a fanfare commensurate with its merits, Faulkner’s Journal declaring ‘it is done with exquisite skill and delicacy, and is looked upon by persons of taste as a masterpiece’ (21 March 1749, quoted in Crookshank and Webb, p. 132). An air of thoughtfulness and a frankness in the depiction of the effects of age were qualities of Roubiliac’s work, which were to be inherited by the two most distinguished foreigners, John van Nost the younger and Simon Vierpyl (qqv), who made their homes in Dublin in the 1750s, and who were to contribute impressively to the Trinity College bust series. The series now began to include graduates and teachers from the college. Nost and Vierpyl passed on their skills in portraiture to their Irish-born pupils, Edward Smyth and Christopher Hewetson (qqv).

465. Louis-François Roubiliac, Jonathan Swift, ,commissioned 1745, marble, Trinity College Dublin Art Collections. Reproduced with kind permission from the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

A look of quizzical intelligence is to be found also in the busts on John van Nost’s funerary monuments in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and Christopher Hewetson is represented at TCD, not in the bust series, but in a funerary monument commemorating Richard Baldwin (1771–83) [147]. The portrait of the doctor, represented on the point of death on his sarcophagus, is close in character to the doctor’s bust by Vierpyl in the college library, both being imbued with a sense of extreme physical frailty. In their venerability, such images recall Roman ancestor portraits. Classical conventions in costume, and classical restraint in portrait busts, had already been characteristics of the portraits produced for Ireland by the Nosts and by Peter Scheemakers, and while Christopher Hewetson derived his strength as a portrait artist from the more intimist and realistic bust tradition stemming from Roubiliac, his move to Rome in 1765 meant that he was able to imbibe the classical spirit at its source, and to fraternize with the leading lights of Neoclassicism. It is then, with a renewed conviction, that Hewetson adopts on occasions the all’antica style, with bare chests, classical coiffure and hermstyle termination, while a sensitivity to the vulnerability of his subjects and a certain modern pensiveness are always in evidence.

Hewetson’s rise to international eminence, principally through his portraits, occurred before the foundation of the RA in 1768. The position of Irish sculptors without academic credentials, despite the fact that they were able to receive in Dublin a comparable craft training, was less secure after that important date, and in the English portrait market a degree of marginalization and even exploitation can be detected thereafter. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Irish hands were contributing anonymously to the success of English portrait sculptors, Sebastian Gahagan graduating to the position of chief assistant carver to Joseph Nollekens, and James Heffernan performing the same function for Sir Francis Chantrey. In both cases, contemporaries attest to the indispensability of their services. Sebastian’s brother Vincent was actually to die in a studio accident while in the employ of Sir Richard Westmacott. Sebastian himself went on to receive commissions for public portrait sculpture of major national importance, but, in retrospect, the initiative of another brother, Lucius, in aiming at a new market for copyrighted portraits of celebrities – produced serially on a small scale – seems a more original way out of what may have looked at times like a professional impasse. The emphasis on characteristic features in some of these small sculptures verges on caricature, and the project anticipates Jean Pierre Dantan’s commercial exploitation of sculpted celebrity caricatures in the Paris of the 1830s and 1840s. With RA credentials and an Italian name, on the other hand, the Belfast-born Peter Turnerelli (qv) could operate successfully at the upper end of the portrait market, at the same time as cashing in on a widening demand for images of royalty and people prominent in the national life, following a dual course already successfully taken by Joseph Nollekens.

Like Hewetson, Turnerelli, though an altogether lesser artist, achieved an international reputation, receiving orders from foreign courts, and an imprimatur from no less a figure than Antonio Canova, who declared Turnerelli’s bust of Henry Grattan (1813, BOI) [466] to be the best modern bust he had seen in England. The bust of Grattan, on the strength of its appeal to Irish patriotic sentiment, was to enjoy circulation in the form of plaster reproductions in Ireland, but probably not on such a scale as the same sculptor’s Daniel O’Connell (RA, 1837), of which ten thousand plaster copies were said to have been sold in the country.

466. Peter Turnerelli, Henry Grattan, 1813, marble, Bank of Ireland, College Green, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Turnerelli’s productivity as a portraitist was equalled, if not surpassed by Christopher Moore, despite the fact that Moore was a late starter, entering the RA Schools only at the age of thirty-four. Moore’s reputation was high in portraiture both in England and Ireland; he took to extremes a tendency already evident in earlier Irish portraiture, but now encouraged by the fashion for phrenology, indulging in an unprecedented degree of unflattering naturalism, especially in the depiction of aged subjects. This is a quality he shared with other London-based artists, such as Samuel Joseph, but few can have gone as far in this direction as Moore did in his bust of G.T. Goodenough (1834, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) [467]. This includes an inscription to the effect that the subject was aged ninety-one at the time the portrait was executed. With its gaping mouth and gap teeth, this is an almost forensic depiction. Also typically of his time, however, Moore’s treatment of juvenile subjects tends towards the saccharine side of pretty. Although his Grattan and his O’Connell (both untraced) never achieved the popularity of Turnerelli’s portraits of these leaders, Moore did give an inspired look to two ‘patriot’ busts, that of John Philpot Curran in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin [213], and that of Richard Lalor Sheil (marble, 1847, NGI). He was also notably successful in capturing what must have been recognized as typically Irish features in busts of contemporary worthies, such as Sir Richard Griffith, known as ‘the father of Irish geology’ (plaster, 1859, RDS). It has been Moore’s misfortune, by common estimation, to have failed in his most significant public commission, that for the statue of poet Thomas Moore (1856, College Street, Dublin) [214], where the cards of circumstance were perhaps stacked against him, in his attempt to render colossal so elfin a figure as that of the national bard.

Where Moore failed, several of his younger contemporaries achieved conspicuous success, and were more than proportionally represented in projects for public statuary in London, some of which involved portraiture, either contemporary or historical. British sculpture, as represented in the metropolis, can definitely be described as restrained by comparison with what was being produced elsewhere in Europe. So uniform were the products of what has since been christened statuemania, that Lord Elcho, criticizing in parliament in 1868 a recently completed statue of Sir Robert Peel, compared the modern system for the production of public statues to the rumoured habit of the American ship-building industry of producing ships by the mile and cutting them off when required. Some of this was a consequence of the artistic timidity of statue committees, but a great deal may also have stemmed from the academic insistence on sculptural propriety in the teaching of the Royal Academy.

The most celebrated and highly commissioned creator of Victorian public statues, Dubliner John Henry Foley (qv), had been through the RA mill. Not only was he considered a safe pair of hands for public portrait commissions, but he became the British champion, put up in the lists against court favourite Carlo Marochetti, whose statue of Richard Coeur de Lion, out-side the Palace of Westminster, the epitome of foreign dash and romanticism, was widely criticized for its theatricality and lack of finish. After the death of Prince Albert, Marochetti was chosen by Queen Victoria to produce the full-length enthroned figure of the prince for the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. Marochetti made two attempts at the colossal statue, the second of which, remaining in his studio after his death in 1867, was found not to be suitable by the queen and her advisors, who decided that Foley should be brought in to produce a more acceptable version. This, like Foley’s other Albert statues in Dublin [114] and Cambridge, proved to be both a good likeness and suitably posed for its situation.

This image of tactful fulfiller of committee expectations and exemplary sculptural workman does less than justice to Foley, who, when occasion permitted, could be as fiery and adventurous as his rival, as for example in his equestrian statue of Sir James Outram [468] for Calcutta, whose horse is in wild career, and who, sword in hand, looks back confidently towards his troops. Indeed a similar degree of demonstrativeness rather sets apart from their English contemporaries Foley’s compatriots active in the field of public statuary. Among them, John Carew and Thomas Kirk were not trained at the RA, and Patrick MacDowell (qqv), from Belfast, was over thirty when he enrolled there. Some of this may explain their comparative freedom from decorum in public statuary commissions.

468. John Henry Foley, Sir James Outram, 1873, bronze, Illustrated London News, 2 August 1873. Reproduced with kind permission from the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

For the author and critic Percy Fitzgerald (qv), who later himself became a sculptor, the lesson Irish sculptors in the eighteenth century learned from Roubiliac had been well learned, and could still prove a source of inspiration. Writing in 1879, Fitzgerald presented as a paragon of sculptural vitality Edward Smyth’s (qv) statue of Charles Lucas [469] in Dublin’s City Hall, executed nearly a century earlier. The statue, he claimed, ‘was full of vivacity and life, his [Lucas’s] very clothes reflecting the animation of the limbs’. He went on: ‘the body makes a sort of curve from the ground, the head and chest stooped forward, the arm bent as if “gathering up something”; in short the whole is as different from the conventional attitude assumed to be that of speaking as could well be imagined’ (‘The Philosophy of a Statue’, AJ, 1879, 6). It is true that sculptors like Foley and MacDowell, and later, presumably following the local example, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (qv) in his Dublin statue of Parnell [273], resorted to what Fitzgerald identified as the standard ‘hortatory’ gesture for orators – the extended arm – but there is no question that Irish contributions to the portrait statues in the Houses of Parliament in London, and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, stand out for their energy and drama from the rest of the marble throng.

469. Edward Smyth, Dr Charles Lucas, installed 1779, marble, City Hall, Dublin. © Denis Mortell Photography.

The sort of immediacy which Fitzgerald found in Smyth’s statue of Lucas suggests the weird actuality that a Sickert or a Francis Bacon would derive from their separate scrutiny of news photography, but it took the experiments of Eadweard Muybridge to bring this sort of thing home to painters and sculptors. The general run of British sculptors, certainly in the second half of the nineteenth century, responded to the challenge of photography more by upping the ante in surface realism and illusionary effect, while remaining within the confines of the standard conventions of costume and pose. The challenge, combined with the insistence of committees on speaking likenesses of commemorated persons, or the requirement to represent subjects as they had been in the prime of life, resulted in an ever-increasing crispness of detail and effects of vivid tonal actuality. Among the more technically adept and consequently successful exponents of this restrained ‘verismo’ was Albert Bruce Joy (qv), and it comes as no surprise after discovering these characteristics in his statues, to find that he was punctilious in the extreme about the placing and lighting of them. He particularly favoured a diagonal light, for which his effects were evidently precisely calculated, complaining that zenithal lighting of his statue of John Bright for the Birmingham Art Gallery would turn it into an eyesore.

Conventional portraiture, in bust and statue format, continued to be produced through the twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries. Celebrity historical and literary figures are commemorated on streets and in parks all over the country. Varieties of style occur, from the primitive characterization in Albert Power’s Seán Mac Diarmada (1940), on a pedestal in his native Kiltyclogher, Co. Leitrim, to the expressive power of Oisín Kelly’s Jim Larkin (1977) on O’Connell Street, Dublin, and, unique in Irish portraiture, Danny Osborne’s (qqv) poly-chrome Oscar Wilde (1997) [249] in Merrion Square, Dublin. Edward Delaney was noted for introducing a modern element to public portraiture in his statues of Thomas Davis (1966) [93] and Wolfe Tone (1967) [94] for Dublin. However, his attempt to marry a richly textured surface finish with traditional portrait imagery resulted in work that, while certainly statuesque, is awkward and stiff – all coat and no character.

There were several portrait exhibitions in Ireland in the 1960s, the first of which was organized by the then Keeper at the Ulster Museum, Anne Crookshank. An Exhibition of Portraits of Great Irish Men and Women, held at the museum in 1965, comprised more than 200 portraits, eighteen of which were sculpted works and two of these were busts of female sitters – artist Evie Hone (by Oisín Kelly, bronze, Jesuit House, St Mary’s, Emo, Co. Laois) and writer Augusta, Lady Gregory (by Jacob Epstein, bronze, 1910, HL) [470]. Modelled in London, Epstein’s portrait of Lady Gregory was commissioned by her nephew Hugh Lane for the then recently opened Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. Both the sitter and the sculptor’s subsequent accounts of the sitting are revealing of the process. Epstein reported that Lady Gregory, after a visit to the hairdresser, wanted the head changed to incorporate her newly coiffed curls and that she wished to be portrayed with bare shoulders. The sculptor was disinclined to incorporate these requested changes, because the bust had ‘been planned to give Lady Gregory the air of the intellectual, somewhat ‘school-marmish’ person that she was’ (Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture, London, 1942, p. 42). Lady Gregory recorded how, when she was distracted one day by a visitor, the sculptor, ‘pleased with some gesture, [he] had cut through the clay throat, tilting head and chin in an eternal eagerness’ (Lady Gregory, Hugh Lane’s Life and Achievement, London, 1921, p. 99). The tilted head is a particularly interesting aspect of the completed portrait, establishing a sense of engagement between viewer and sitter.

The second of the 1960s exhibitions, Cuimhneacháin 1916: A Commemoration Exhibition of the Irish Rebellion, 1916, which took place in the NGI in April 1966, was largely, but not exclusively portrait work. Among the twenty sculptures in the exhibition were portraits (six bronze busts and one marble plaque) of the seven signatories of the Proclamation – the work of Albert Power (Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada), Oisín Kelly (Thomas MacDonagh), Leo Broe (Patrick Pearse), Domhnall Ó Murchadha (Éamonn Ceannt), Séamus Murphy (James Connolly) and Peter Grant (qqv) (Joseph Plunkett). Albert Power was something of a national portrait sculptor – regularly commissioned in the 1920s and ’30s to portray historical figures who played a role in establishing the newly independent state. Many of these intensely life-like portraits are in the collection of the NGI.

A second explicitly portrait exhibition in the 1960s, Irish Portraits 1660–1860, toured to Dublin (NGI), London (NPGL) and Belfast (Ulster Museum) between 1969 and 1970. Yet again, of more than 200 portrait works eighteen were marble busts. This historic gathering included work by Smyth, Turnerelli, Foley, Kirk, Hogan, which the Irish Times reviewer found ‘impressive’ (16 August 1969). The essential difference between these busts and the more contemporary work in the other two exhibitions was evident in the material used – all marble in this exhibition, more bronze in the commemorative show, and a range of mixed media in the Irish Greats. The earlier busts also have a tendency to heroic presentation and the occasional use of classical drapery, thus establishing a certain distance, whereas the twentieth-century portraits are more markedly casual and individualistic – apparently attempting to capture personality rather than position.

The University of Limerick houses two collections of portrait work, the National Self-Portrait Collection, which com-prises substantially more two-dimensional work, but nonetheless a good representation of sculpted pieces, and Helen Hooker O’Malley’s (qv) bronze portrait heads of well-known writers, political figures and other personalities. The O’Malley busts, modelled over nearly fifty years, include Liam O’Flaherty, dating to 1937, and Samuel Beckett and Seán O’Casey, both 1985. Truncated at the neck, a format that is rarely seen in earlier bust portraiture, these busts focus on the expressive details found in each of the faces. While much of the twentieth-century bust and portrait statue work remained conservative, there is evidence of a certain novelty in some of the sculpted self-portraits in the NSPC. Artists such as Deborah Brown, Alexandra Wejchert and Michael Warren (qqv) are represented in the collection by two-dimensional portrait images, and several sculptors, Melanie le Brocquy and Dick Joynt (qqv) included, chose the traditional bust format – producing busts that are very varied in technique and surface finish. Eilís O’Connell’s (qv) Life Mask (bronze, 1985/86) [471] is just that, a self-portrait cast from her face. Tom Fitzgerald, Patrick McElroy and Vivienne Roche (qqv), among several others, chose to suggest rather than record themselves, using symbolic or abstract forms of representation. In Fitzgerald’s Self-Portrait as a Pendulum (brass and slate, 1988), a barely perceptible image of the sculptor’s face is drawn on the pendulum, clearly denoting the passage of time. McElroy represents himself by way of a primitive mask (hammered sheet bronze, 1988). Roche, selecting to specifically challenge traditional self-portraiture, chose in Self-Portrait (bronze, 1992) to depict herself by way of a recognizable and particularly appropriate conical bell-like form.

471. Eilís O’Connell, Life Mask, 1985–86, bronze, National Self Portrait Collection of Ireland, Limerick. Gandon Archive, Photo © Denis Mortell.

In 2009 John Gibbons (qv) held an exhibition of five of his portrait heads at the National Portrait Gallery in London, titled simply John Gibbons: Portraits. The portrait images varied from miniature chamber- or church-like constructions, dating to the early 1980s, to helmet-type structures, or what might be described as head cages, in the later work. Mostly worked in stainless steel, the ‘portraits’ were of family members except for one, Gráinne/Saying Hallo (2008–09) [472], which – intended to capture something of a female friend who had committed suicide – was the most lively and yet the most fragile of them all. Gibbons, who talks of the head as a ‘container for experience’ and a ‘sanctuary for thought’, has no interest in reproducing the appearance of individuals in his portrait work. In the case of this sculptor, he has ‘not only engaged with portraiture but has extended the language of this genre in radical ways’ (Paul Moorhouse, John Gibbons, Light/Listen, Selected Sculpture 1991–2010, Hillsboro Fine Art, Dublin 2010, p. 40).  

472. John Gibbons, Jane / E / and Still, 2008–09. stainless steel and copper, and Gráinne/ Saying Hello, 2008–09, stainless steel. Portraits presented in the National Portrait Gallery, London, 2009-10.  Courtesy of the artist, Photo © Noah Da Costa.

SELECTED READING The National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland, vol. 1: 1979–89, Sarah Finlay, Limerick, 1989, vol. 2: 1989–99, William Gallagher, Limerick, 2006; A. Crookshank and D. Webb, Paintings and Sculptures in Trinity College, Dublin, Dublin, 1990; Malcolm Baker, ‘The Making of Portrait Busts in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: Roubiliac, Scheemakers and Trinity College Dublin’, Burlington Magazine, CXXXVII, 1113 (December 1995), 821–31; Malcolm Baker, ‘The Portrait Sculpture’, chapter 4 in David McKitterick (ed.), The Making of the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridge, 1995; Fintan Cullen, The Irish Face: Redefining the Irish Portrait, London, 2004.