The Chequered Fate of a Queen

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), News, Volume 9

In 1900 the council of the Royal Dublin Society proposed that a monument be raised to Queen Victoria within the precincts of the its grounds at Leinster House. At a time of growing nationalist support, the statue was to provide a focus for those Irish loyal to the queen. The sculptor chosen for this prestigious commission was John Hughes (1865-1941). Instructor in Modelling at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, he had already completed a striking life-size bronze of writer Charles J. Kickham for Tipperary town. On the strength of this new important national commission he resigned his post at the School of Art and went to Paris. The city afforded better facilities for this ambitious project. Over £7,000 was raised from public and private  subscriptions, a not inconsiderable sum of money for that time. The appeal to the public for contributions stressed that the monument would focus on the personality of the queen rather than on her political persona. It would also commemorate the courage of Irish soldiers in the ongoing Boer War. This helped to ensure the flow of funds. At official level it was helped too by a contribution of £500 which resulted from a single meeting of prominent citizens including the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Mayor, and principal officials. Another £500 was donated by Lord Iveagh.
The commission was completed and erected by 1908. Of flamboyant and elaborate style, it consisted of the central figure of the queen, in bronze, seated on a raised, richly carved, marble pedestal, dressed in full regalia. The one concession to conveying a less powerful political presence was the discreet size of the throne on which she as placed. Incorporated in the angles of the three-sided plinth below were bronze figures symbolising Victory and Peace and to single out those who had fought in the Boer War, the figure of Érin was depicted laying a wreath on the head of a dying man. The Irish Times reported that ‘the general opinion entertained by the spectators was that the statue is one of the very finest memorials yet erected in the United Kingdom to the memory of the gracious lady who ruled so wisely and well over these realms’. Yet four decades later the monument was dismantled, removed from public view, and the 4.6 metres high queen was regarded as ‘as an obese statue looking like a Wagnerian Rhinemaiden and certainly the ugliest monument in the city’.
Her fall from grace was primarily due to the changed political dispensation with the advent of the Irish Free State. But not exclusively so: there were also objections on artistic grounds. A major criticism was that the figure of the queen was too bulky. In fact this was something which had greatly troubled the sculptor. In the spring 1908 Hughes wrote to the RDS expressing his view that he had made a mistake in having modelled the statue on a much larger scale than was shown on the original sketch model. He requested permission, at his own expense, to have a second statue cast in bronze in lieu of the one already in place (nothing came of this suggestion). Hughes believed that the monument’s overall dimensions would have been less noticeable if it had been located in the wider expanses of the Phoenix Park. It was simply far too large for the forecourt of Leinster House in Kildare Street. Equally, in his view, its lavish baroque style jarred with the severe Georgian façade of the building behind it.
But however strong the objections on aesthetic grounds, it was what the monument came to signify politically that determined its eventual fate. The choice of location had been perfectly appropriate in 1908; in front of the building owned by the institution who had originally commissioned it. But when Leinster House became the seat of the Dáil, Victoria’s presence in the changed political space, albeit in bronze, was unwelcome. Erected at the instigation of the Ascendancy Irish who were no longer in power, she was a constant reminder of an unacceptable political past. By 1929 the Irish Times was reporting that the statue was to be removed from Leinster House by the Office of Public Works (this was denied by the OPW at the time). The Star in its account of the rumour called the monument a ‘hideous pile’ and declared it to be an insult to public political feeling. In 1933 coverage of the story by Irish newspapers included a report that a statue of nationalist hero Thomas Davis was to be put in its place. Interestingly the sculptor expressed himself unsurprised at the depth of feeling against the statue. He understood that it symbolised Ireland’s colonial history, one not in accord with the new dispensation. In 1937 questions were raised in the Dáil and finally in July 1948, the monument was dismantled and brought to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (now the Irish Museum of Modern Art), where it languished for many years. But in spite of her bulk she was to rise phoenix-like to enjoy a new lease of life when she was donated to Australia by Charles Haughey’s government in 1987. But for how long? In the ever-growing climate of Australian republicanism, it is probable that the fate of Victoria has yet to be finally decided.

Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch is Curator of Irish Paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland.

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