Oliver Sheppard RHA, Irish sculptor most famous for his 1911 bronze statue of the mythical Cúchulainn dying in battle, is born at Old Town, Cookstown, County Tyrone on April 10, 1865. His work is also part of the art competitions at the 1924 Summer Olympics and the 1928 Summer Olympics.
Sheppard is born to Simpson Sheppard, a sculptor, and Ellen White, of Ormond Quay, Dublin.
Sheppard is based in Dublin for almost all of his life, having travelled widely across Europe. He and his wife Rosie have several children. They live at Howth and 30 Pembroke Road in central Dublin. She dies in 1931.
Sheppard’s main influence is the Frenchman Édouard Lantéri who teaches him at the Royal College of Art in London, and then at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin (now the National College of Art and Design), where he later becomes a lecturer.
From 1902 to 1937 Sheppard teaches sculpture at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, which is renamed the National College of Art in 1936. His annual stipend is £250 but for this he only has to lecture on three mornings per week, allowing him plenty of time for work on commissioned projects. One of his most famous students is the sculptor Kathleen Cox.
As a prominent sculptor Sheppard is a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Royal Dublin Society, and is made a governor of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1925–41. He also exhibits works at European exhibitions during his lifetime, occasionally winning prizes.
Sheppard is generally critical of the low standards of sculpture in Ireland, saying, “For the last sixty years or so thousands of figures and groups have been executed in Dublin for ecclesiastical purposes, and, with one or two exceptions…was not up to a reasonable standard. The making of a work of art hardly entered into it at all. The sculptor, well trained and properly encouraged, should collaborate with the architect.”
In 1890–1910 Sheppard is a part of the Celtic Revival movement, and, from his works such as Inis Fáil, is admired by his student William Pearse. Through him he meets his brother, Patrick Pearse, who later helps launch the Easter Rising in 1916. While most of the Revival’s artists are writers, playwrights and poets, Sheppard can claim to be the main sculptor working on themes similar to theirs.
Sheppard is in the minority of Irish Protestants who support independence, starting with support for the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s, when he is an art student. After the Irish War of Independence (1919–21) he says, “They thought me too old to fight but I have tried to help in other ways. My politics are simple. I have always thought that this country should be a free country.” His opinions are not overly dogmatic, considering his work on the war memorials in 1920.
In the mid-1920s the first series of Irish Free State coinage is planned, and is finally launched in 1928. Sheppard is one of the designers short-listed but his designs are not accepted.
Sheppard dies in Dublin on September 14, 1941.
(Pictured: “The Dying Cúchulainn,” sculpture by Oliver Sheppard, now at the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin)