Foley’s Asia (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1999) - on Albert Memorial, Hyde Park

Now Foley had already completed three memorials for the Prince Consort who, in an age of heroes, was being promoted by his widow as the greatest hero of them all. One was in Birmingham, another in Cambridge, and the last was in Dublin. For the great national monument at Hyde Park, he had already been commissioned to produce one of the four groups representing the continents which were to be positioned at each corner of the monument. With typical courtesy, he let his colleagues have their choice of continent first, and accordingly was left with Asia, which the others considered to be something of an embarrassment on account of the elephant. Anyhow, the Baron got the plum, the production of Albert, the centrepiece. But his first effort was rejected as unsatisfactory, and so was his second, which he completed just before his death. The Queen herself insisted that Foley make his fourth Albert.

So Foley set to work on an enormous figure which, had it been standing, would have been nineteen feet tall. The Prince is seated on a throne, his head tilted forward so that it is positioned directly in the centre of the arch above when viewed from the side as well as from beneath, and also, as he explained to the committee, to show Albert taking an active rather than a passive interest in the works of civilization being conducted below him. The general idea was, as usual, to combine the realistic and the ideal.

A representation of Albert’s physiognomy combined with an expression of his essential character - his high position in the world, his integrity, his humanity.

The purpose of the monument - which would bear the inscription “Queen Victoria and her people” - was to celebrate the benefits advanced to mankind by Victoria’s reign. At the base of the throne would be a frieze depicting all the wondrous achievements of the age. Then, at the four corners of the monument, the four continents, each represented by a woman, with the different racial sub-groups beneath her, represented by men, the peoples who received the benefits. There is an Indian warrior holding his sword, a Chinese craftsman holding a vase, a Persian poet holding a pen, an Arab holding the Koran.

Foley’s practice was to study and contemplate the details of the lives of those who were his subjects before he made their shape, so that he could identify the essentials, the ideal quality he had to embody in the matter. So what was the quality of these people? What did they embody? How did they relate to each other? How did they relate to the Prince? Were they simply a representative gathering of racially inferior, conquered peoples, who ought to be glad of the possibility of improvement which contact with Britain afforded them? This was how Sir George Gilbert Scott, the designer of the monument, clearly perceived them.

Some art critics, including one or two who knew Foley and his work very well, took the view that Foley did not share this perception.

They noted that all the figures in the group have their backs turned to one another. In other words, they do not relate to one another at all. They refuse to acknowledge [133] the relationship devised for them by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The Indian is looking in the general direction of the Albert Hall across the road; the Chinese, sitting cross-legged at the Indian’s feet, seems to be in a trance, perhaps induced by opium; on the other side of the group, the Persian poet stares at the heavens; the Arab, like the Chinese, is grounded, leaning against a camel-saddle. None are looking at Albert, or relating to any of the other figures on the crowded monument either for that matter. Some saw in this arrangement an expression of scorn on Foley’s part for the subject, indeed an ecpression of defiance for the concept, which forced unnatural relationships upon things which wre, in truth, quite independent of one another.

Had the iconographer of Hardinge and Canning, of Outram, Gough, Nicholson and many others, the conquerors of Asia, suffered a change of heart when it came to representing Asia? Was he suddenly conscious of a sudden loathing on his part for the Queen, her consort and all their works? Did he suddenly have a vision of himself as the mindless lackey and celebrant of imperialism, the enslavement of half the globe? Or did he simply follow his methods and procedures and carve what emerged, which is what he had always done?

What was he thinking of when he shaped the magnificent woman who sits upon the elephant?

This female is a far cry from Egeria or Ino, Innocence or The Mother. She is large, languid, sensuous, rich. There are jewels around her neck and arms, around her wrists, around her forehead. She is lifting a veil from her face, which is calm and proud and transcendentally beautiful. Her breasts are startlingly big and voluptuous.

This regal woman feigns no interest in the doings of the busy British people upon the frieze behind her. And the great crouching elephant upon which she sits is rather magnificent too, and so faithfully observed, with his curling trunk, wrinkled skin and mood of quiet, sullen potency.

Shaping the woman cost Foley his life. For he spent long hours sitting on the limbs of the figure, on wet clay, to model the bust. This brought on the attack of pleurisy which began the tedious process of his death.

Thus Asia wrought revenge on Foley.

Thus Foley sacrificed his life for an ideal.

The doctors wanted him to quit England entirely for the Mediterranean, but he could not bring himself to leave his studio and his workmen. He travelled only as far as Hastings, where he wrote the only poem of his which survives, his envoi, “Here We Must Part”[:] “Farewell, forget me, may thy days roll on

Still blessed, till time shall be no more.
I would not have thy bosom harbour one
Dark drop that sorrow from its depths might pour,
Farewell, cast from thy glistening eyes
Those tears, and let them be
The last that evermore shall rise
In memory of me.”

Most supposed this was addressed to his wife. But it might equally have been addressed to Asia.
His days were full of sadness, as he paced the gallery, contemplating in the workshops embryos whose birth he would not see. He prepared to pass the mantle to the chosen ones among his disciples, Tenniswood and Brock.’ (pp.133-35.)

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