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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: Oliver Sheppard

21 April 2015

The Death of Cúchulainn, by Oliver Sheppard, 1935


This week the Irish Times Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is the Death of Cúchulainn, by Oliver Sheppard. The sculpture, which sits outside the GPO in Dublin, exemplifies just how difficult it is for a piece of sculpture to depict an historic moment in Irish culture.

Catch up on the entire 100 Artworks series.

Read more about the sculptor in his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography below.

Sheppard sculpture was chosen by Eamon de Valera to memoralise the 20th anniversary of the Easter Rising. De Valera described the work as ‘a beautiful piece of sculpture, the creation of Irish genius, symbolising the dauntless courage and abiding constancy of our people’.

Cuchulainn was chosen as the subject of the sculpture because of its link to cultural nationalism and political independence. ‘dying for Ireland’.

Sheppard’s sculpture was never createdas a monument to Easter 1916 – his inspiration was from the Celtic Revivalist perspective.

Read more about the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland project here.

Read the Irish Times article in full.

Sheppard, Oliver, by John Turpin

Sheppard, Oliver (1865–1941), sculptor, was born 10 April 1865 in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, one of a family of four sons and one daughter of Simpson Sheppard (1834–1908), a sculptor specialising in Bossi-work for ornamental chimney pieces, and Ellen Sheppard (née White; b. 1842). Both parents were of northern Irish protestant origin. Simpson Sheppard moved to Dublin around 1863 to set up a marble works at Lower Ormond Quay. In 1869 the family moved home and business to 72 Blessington St. In 1884 they moved to 19 St Joseph's Avenue, Drumcondra, and in 1885 to 10 Alphonsus Terrace nearby. One of Sheppard's brothers, Reuben, also became a sculptor.

Sheppard may have been employed initially by a firm of artisan sculptors. In 1874 and 1876 he won certificates of proficiency in drawing from the Science and Art Department, London, which controlled art qualifications in the UK. In autumn 1884 he entered the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, Kildare St. (latterly the National College of Art and Design) as an ‘artisan’. W. B. Yeats (qv) and George Russell (qv) were fellow art students and friends. He studied life drawing and modelling and in 1885 he won a free studentship for the following three academic years. Simultaneously (1885–8) he was also a student at the RHA schools in Abbey St. He won prize medals at both Dublin art schools. His studies in Dublin culminated in winning a scholarship to the National Art Training School (Royal College of Art) where he studied for three academic years (1888–91). He also studied in the Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum, and won a silver medal (1889) and a bronze (1890). A fellow student of sculpture in London, and a close friend, was John Hughes (qv), also from Dublin. Sheppard studied sculpture under the immigrant French sculptor Edouard Lantéri (1848–1917), who profoundly influenced the development of his naturalistic modelling style. He was assistant to Lantéri, probably during 1890–91. He lived at Fulham while in London. In October 1891 he travelled to Paris, where he lived at 53 rue de la Harpe and studied at the Académie Julian and at Colarossi's Academy. He examined French Gothic and renaissance sculpture, and also examples of nineteenth-century medal design, all of which he recorded in his notebooks. In the summer of 1891 he accompanied John Hughes to Italy to study renaissance sculpture, travelling as far as Naples.

He exhibited for the first time in company with his father at the Dublin Artisan's Exhibition, George's St. (1885). He first exhibited at the RHA in 1886 and continued to exhibit annually there for the remainder of his life. He showed at the Royal Academy, London, in 1891 and several times during the 1890s.

He was appointed teacher of modelling at Leicester School of Art from 12 December 1892 to July 1893. He still retained a London address at Stamford Bridge Studios, and in 1894 at Radnor Studios, Chelsea. From 17 September 1894 he was teacher of modelling at Nottingham School of Art. In 1894 he lived at Castle Chambers, Nottingham; in 1895 at Foreman's Buildings; and in 1897 he was living at Castle Rooms, Lenton Road, but retained a London address at 1 Fulham Studios. While teaching sculpture at Nottingham School of Art he became friends with the painters Laura Johnson and Harold Knight (who later married and became members of the Royal Academy, London). Through Laura he met her friend and pupil, Rosalie Good (1868–1931), who came from a prosperous local business family. Sheppard married her (16 July 1901) in Nottingham and they lived at 6 Albert Grove. The Knights and Sheppards were frequent visitors to Staithes on the Yorkshire coast, where there was an artists’ colony. Arising from these visits Sheppard carved ‘Head of a girl, Staithes’, and made sketches of the fisher folk. He exhibited periodically in the Nottingham Society of Artists. One of his best students was the sculptor Joseph Else (c.1875–1955). The culmination of Sheppard's work in Nottingham was a commission from the W. S. Holbrook bequest to model a bust of the poet Henry Kirke-White, which included a poetic relief, for Nottingham castle museum (1902). This was his first public sculpture. It was one of a number of busts of historic Nottingham figures by important contemporary sculptors.

His early work exhibited at the RHA consisted mainly of portrait heads. With the establishment of a permanent base in Nottingham, he began in 1895 to send figure studies to the RHA and to the Royal Academy, London. His ‘Oisin and Niamh’, inspired by W. B. Yeats, won him the Albert prize at the RHA (1895). He was deeply influenced by the prose and poetry of the Celtic revival, as evident in his work: ‘The training of Cuchulainn’ (RHA, 1897), ‘Finn Foya’ (RHA, 1899), ‘The fate of the children of Lir’ (RHA, 1900), and ‘Inis Fáil’ (RHA, 1901), which drew an extensive critical response from Patrick Pearse (qv), who greatly admired Sheppard's work. These sculptures established Sheppard's reputation. His Celtic revival subjects culminated in ‘The death of Cuchulainn’ (1911–12), which was adopted as the 1916 rising memorial and installed in the GPO in 1935. It is his most celebrated sculpture.

He succeeded John Hughes as teacher of modelling at the RHA in July 1902. W. B. Yeats was influential in encouraging Sheppard to apply and in recommending him to T. P. Gill (qv), secretary to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which controlled the school. Sheppard returned permanently to Dublin in July 1902, but retained an interest in French culture throughout his life and visited Paris with his wife in 1903, 1908, 1929, and 1930. He rented, then bought, 30 Pembroke Road as a family home, where he constructed a studio in the mews. Around 1908 he bought a second home, Knockranny, Carrickbrack Road, Howth, where he lived in the summer months. His only child, Cathleen, was born 12 July 1909 and lived with her father till his death.

He was elected an ARHA on 21 July 1898, a full member on 17 July 1901, and professor of sculpture in 1904 – a position he retained for his life. He became a trustee of the Academy in 1917, and was a regular attender at Academy functions. He was a foundation member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors from 1905 to 1930. His commitment to the Celtic revival is evident in his membership of the Gaelic Society at the School of Art (1905) and of the Oireachtas art exhibition committee (1906). He was invited to join the Union International des Beaux Arts et des Lettres, Paris (1907). Other memberships were of the original Irish Georgian Society (1909), the Zoological Society of Ireland (1924), and Portmarnock Golf Club (1924), where he partnered his brother, Dr John Sheppard. In 1925 he was appointed as governor of the NGI. He was also vice-president of the United Arts Club.

At the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art he taught all the stages of modelling the head and the figure. He prepared his students to compete for the Taylor art prize offered at the RDS. Gilles Orlandi was his technical assistant for plaster casting. He also taught every year on the summer courses to train art teachers. Among his more important students in professional terms were Beatrice Elvery (qv), Albert Power (qv), William Pearse (qv), Frank Wiles, Ethel Ball, Kathleen Cox (qv), Bridget Ganly (qv), Laurence Campbell (qv), Gabriel Hayes (qv), Peter Grant, and Peter Brennan. He insisted on high standards from his students, but was also kindly and encouraging. The warmth of his personality and light-hearted manner were remembered by all who knew him professionally or personally. He was very sympathetic to Irish national cultural aspirations but was also open to British and continental culture. He had a particular regard for the sculpture of Sir Joseph Epstein.

He confirmed his position as a leading portrait sculptor with his busts of Dr R. D. Purefoy, master of the Rotunda Hospital, and of John O'Leary (qv), the Fenian writer (both in 1904). Commissions followed from TCD for a series of prize medals and portrait plaques for mural display in the college.

The commemoration of the centenary of the 1798 rising provided Sheppard with two major commissions for public sculpture: ‘The pikeman’ in Wexford (1905) and the 1798 memorial in Enniscorthy (1907). Both are vigorously modelled and were unveiled at massive nationalist political rallies; the Wexford ‘Pikeman’ became well known as a nationalist icon. He provided a heroic bust of the poet James Clarence Mangan (qv) with an accompanying symbolist relief of Róisín Dubh (1909) in St Stephen's Green, Dublin, for the National Literary Society. He also made a number of statuettes of female nudes, notably ‘La jeunesse’ (1904) and ‘In mystery the soul abides’ (1913), inspired by the poetry of Matthew Arnold. He painted occasional portraits and landscapes in a competent, realistic style throughout his life, but these were for personal interest, not exhibition purposes.

Once established as a sculptor, Sheppard exhibited widely before the first world war, mainly at the RHA; the Royal Academy, London; the Cork International Exhibition (1902); the Oireachtas Art Exhibition (1906, 1907); the Munster–Connacht Exhibition at Limerick (1906); the Irish International Exhibition in Dublin (1907); the Franco–British Exhibition, London (1908); the International Fine Art Exhibition, Rome (1909); and the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland (1910–17). Often the same works appeared in more than one exhibition.

For the new Royal College of Science he was commissioned by the government to provide a series of architectural sculptures: an allegorical figure of Science, and portrait figures of the historically important Irish scientists Robert Boyle (qv) and William Rowan Hamilton (qv) (1912). For the Honan Hostel chapel at UCC he provided the figure of St Finbarr (qv) above the entrance door (1917). After the first world war he was commissioned by the solicitors’ and barristers’ organisations to provide two war memorial reliefs containing allegorical figures and lists of their deceased members (both 1920).

On the establishment of the Irish Free State, he was commissioned by the government (1922) to design the prize medal for Aonach Tailteann (the national games, first held in 1924) and posthumous busts of Kevin O'Higgins (qv) (1932), Patrick Pearse (1936), and Cathal Brugha (qv) (1939), as part of an official gallery of portraits of political figures.

In the 1920s and 1930s he continued to exhibit, not only at the RHA but at the Exposition d'Art Irlandais, Paris (1922); the 8th Olympiade, Exposition et Concours d'Art, Paris (1924); the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland (1925); Irish Portraits by Ulster Artists, Belfast (1927); the Royal Institute of Fine Art, Glasgow (1928); the RDS bicentenary (1932); Aonach Tailteann (1932); the British Empire Exhibition, Glasgow (1938), and the New York World Fair (1939) where he showed a copy of his ‘Cuchulainn’. He showed at the Exhibition of Pictures and Sculptures by Irish Artists at the RDS in spring 1941.

After his retirement in 1937 from the National College of Art (as the school had been renamed), he was appointed in 1938 by the minister for education to the College's standing committee. He was also made a judge in the RDS art competition in 1939 and 1940. He died 14 September 1941 at Knockranny and was buried at Old St Fintan's cemetery, Sutton. There was a small retrospective exhibition of fourteen of his works at the RHA in 1942. There are portraits of Sheppard by George Russell (Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane) and Sir William Orpen (qv) (NGI), and photographic portraits in the Sheppard collection, National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL) at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, where his papers are located.

Sheppard was a master of naturalistic figure modelling: mythological subjects, nudes, portrait busts, plaques, and medals. In this he shows the influence of French realism. His figure subjects, notably ‘Inis Fáil’ and ‘The death of Cuchulainn’, place him at the centre of the cultural revival. His public sculptures in Co. Wexford commemorating the 1798 rising reflect the nationalist political atmosphere. His portrait busts and reliefs showed great sensitivity. His achievement is of high artistic quality.

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