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Art historian says sculptures removed from Shelbourne Hotel did not depict slaves

The University of London lecturer said that the women were instead princesses.

An empty plinth outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.
An empty plinth outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

AN ART HISTORIAN has said that the statues removed from outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin were not slave girls but were instead “princesses”. 

Kyle Leyden, who lectures at the University of London, told RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime programme that the original catalogue the work was chosen from did not refer to the statues as slaves. 

“In that printed catalogue, it appears that the man who originally created and sculpted the statues does not actually refer to them as slaves. He did not intend them to be read as slaves,” Leyden said. 

“It was clear that the Egyptian statue at least was not in any way to be read as a slave. It was wearing a royal Egyptian headdress, which would indicate it was a princess,” he told the programme. 

The four bronze statues – said to depict two Nubian princesses from the lower Nile and their slave girls holding torches – were recently removed from outside the historic hotel. 

The statues, which included two apparently manacled slave women, stood on top of plinths outside the Shelbourne. 

Earlier this week, Dublin City Council said that it was investigating the removal of the statues for potential breaches of rules around listed buildings. The removal also sparked concerns among the Irish Georgian Society. 

Leyden said that the women depicted in the statues are dressed in expensive, high-quality materials. In contrast, sculptures of slaves usually saw women depicted naked. 

“The Shelbourne statue is clothed in expensive striped silk and wears a golden headband,” he said. Referring to the statues as part of an “Egyptomania” that swept Europe in the early 19th century, he said it was unlikely the women in the statues were wearing manacles. 

“They are simply bangles around the ankles of the statues. In addition to that, all four of the statues wear the same bangle around their ankles,” he added. 

He also said that the downward-looking pose of the statues was an intentional artistic decision. 

“These statues were always intended to be displayed at a height of about 12 feet. If you think about this practically, if a statue was looking either straight ahead or up at a height of 12 feet, you simply wouldn’t see any of the features on the face,” Leyden said. 

With reporting from Cónal Thomas

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