Foley, John Henry (1818–74), sculptor, was born 24 May 1818 at 6 Montgomery St., Dublin, second son and second among four children of Jesse Foley, glassblower, and Eliza Foley (née Byrne). His father later ran a grocer's shop on Mecklenburg St. His paternal step-grandfather, Benjamin Shrowder (d. 1826), originally of Winchelsea, Kent, had come to Dublin to carve sculptures for the Custom House under the direction of Edward Smyth (qv). Foley entered the Dublin Society schools in 1831, where, despite having little formal education, he had a most successful student career. After receiving a number of premiums for modelling, he won the four major schools’ prizes in 1833. In March 1834 he went to London to join his brother Edward (below), who had also trained as a sculptor. In the following year he entered the school of the Royal Academy, where he was awarded a silver medal.
He exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1839. His submission the following year, ‘Ino and the infant Bacchus’, was the first of a number of idealised figure pieces which were favourably received during the 1840s. His ‘Youth at a stream’, exhibited in 1844, made a particular impact and was subsequently exhibited at a number of venues in Britain and Ireland. In 1847 he was awarded his first major public commission, a marble statue of John Hampden for the houses of parliament, Westminster. This was followed by the statue of John Selden for the same location in 1854. With such works Foley established himself as one of the leading sculptors working in Britain in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. His ability to combine an element of realism with a classical approach to pose gave his work a vitality and monumentality often felt by contemporary commentators to be lacking in the sculpture of their day. Foley went on to produce some of the best-known commemorative sculpture of the nineteenth century, culminating in his figures of Prince Albert and Asia for the Albert memorial (1868–76; Kensington Gardens, London) and the O'Connell monument (1866–82; O'Connell St., Dublin).
The latter may be seen as the most important sculptural commission of the period in Ireland. The granting of it to Foley aroused considerable and heated opposition in Ireland. This was due to the fact that he was so closely identified with England, having spent his entire career there. There was a strong feeling that an Irish sculptor, resident in Ireland, should carry out a work so significant for the cause of Irish nationalism. Hence there was strong support for commissioning Thomas Farrell (qv). Despite all this, Foley was awarded the commission in 1867. At his death he had completed the main figure of O'Connell and the frieze on the drum. Foley made effective use of the drum (on which the over-life-size figure of O'Connell stands) to depict figures symbolising the people of Ireland. With a bishop on one side and a peasant on the other, these two male pillars of society pay homage to the female allegorical figure of Erin who tramples chains underfoot. The work, completed by his pupil Thomas Brock, was unveiled in 1882.
A number of his works commemorating notable Irish figures are also to be seen in Dublin. Of his bronze statue of Oliver Goldsmith (qv) (1864; TCD), Sidney Hall, editor of Art Journal and champion of Foley's work, wrote: ‘There exists no statue more perfect than that of Oliver Goldsmith in which he had untoward materials to deal with, and which is beyond question a triumph of genius over difficulties such as I think is unparalleled in art of any period’ (Hall, Art Journal 1874, 306). His statue of Edmund Burke (qv) (1868) stands adjacent to this work at the entrance to TCD. In 1873 his monument to Benjamin Lee Guinness (qv) was erected outside St Patrick's cathedral. These works show how he strove to create a pose that could capture something of the personality and standing of the subject. To this end, he depicted his figures in contemporary dress so as to convey a greater sense of authenticity, a quality much valued by his Victorian audience.
Foley's equestrian monuments are among his greatest achievements. He vividly captured the dynamism of horse and rider in such works as ‘Viscount Hardinge’ (1858) and ‘James Outram’ (erected 1874). The latter, exceptional for the drama of the movement of the rearing horse and the rider twisting in the saddle, shows the influence of the French romantic painter Theodore Géricault (1791–1824). The invitation to design a memorial to Field-marshal Viscount Gough (qv) gave him the welcome opportunity to make an equestrian monument for Dublin. His enthusiasm for this project is reflected in his acceptance letter (August 1869), in which he wrote: ‘I need scarcely repeat how gratifying the task would be and how willing I am to forego all considerations of profit in my desire to engage myself upon it’ (Turpin, DHR, xxxii (1978–9), 46). It was initially to be sited on Carlisle Bridge; this was deemed too close to the O'Connell monument to be appropriate, and it was finally erected in the Phoenix Park opposite the entrance to the viceregal lodge (latterly Áras an Uachtaráin). After several attacks on the monument in the 1950s, the remains were removed to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and later sold and re-erected in England.
In 1849 Foley was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy. He became a full member in 1858. Though he had exhibited regularly at the academy since 1839, he stopped in 1861 after disagreements over the way in which sculpture was displayed. However, by this time his reputation was sufficiently high that it did not suffer. He also exhibited at the British Institution between 1840 and 1854, and at the RHA during the 1840s and again in the early 1860s. He was elected a member in 1861, and two years later he was elected to the Belgian Academy of Arts.
Foley was a serious and extremely hard-working individual. Despite constant public approbation he was known for his dissatisfaction with his work. He did not move in fashionable circles; rather his lifestyle was unostentatious, and he was generous and hospitable to his intimates. He was also a noted player and composer of music. He died 27 August 1874 at his home, The Priory, Hampstead, London, after a respiratory illness thought to have been contracted while working on the Albert memorial. Though he had wished to be interred in Highgate cemetery, he was buried in the crypt of St Paul's cathedral on 5 September, the simple service being in accordance with his wishes. He was survived by his wife, Mary Anne Grey (m. 1847). They had no children. He bequeathed his large collection of casts to Dublin. The housing of the collection proved problematic, however, and what remains of it is in the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin. His statue ‘Winter’ is in the NGI.
His elder brother, Edward Arlington Foley (1814–74), was also born in Dublin. In 1826 he entered the Dublin Society schools and was apprenticed to the sculptor John Smyth (qv). However, before this apprenticeship finished he found himself without work and so travelled to London. There he was employed by the sculptor W. H. Behnes (1795–1864). He went on to establish himself as a sculptor of portraits. His bust of the artist Samuel Lover (qv) is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. He exhibited a full-length portrait of Sir Robert Peel (qv) at the national exhibition in Cork in 1852. On occasion he dealt with historical subjects: his ‘Canute reproving his courtiers’ was well received when exhibited at Westminster Hall in 1844. He died 10 May 1874, by drowning himself in Regent's Canal, London; he never married.