James Heffernan, Sculptor

(b. 1785, d. 1847)


From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was born in Londonderry in 1785, the son of a marble-carver employed by the Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry. At the age of 11 he lost his father, and showing a talent for drawing, the bishop placed him as an apprentice with Michael Shanahan, an architect of Cork, who was then engaged in executing some works for him. Heffernan accompanied his master to Cork, and applied himself to the study of architecture and drawing. Shanahan had extensive marble works, and there Heffernan made his first attempts at sculpture, being employed in the carving of chimney-pieces and tombstones. Although his ambition at first was to become a painter, the interest he found in sculpture determined him to confine himself to that pursuit and to abandon the palette and brush. He worked hard, and at the age of twenty-two he resolved to seek his fortune in London, He at first found employment with Rossi the sculptor; but after a few months he entered Chantrey's studio and also became a student in the Royal Academy, where he distinguished himself by obtaining several prizes and medals. Leaving Chantrey he went to Rome, where he spent a short time and then returned to London. He might now, with his undoubted talents, have found an opening for himself as a sculptor; but Chantrey allured him again to his studio, representing to him the difficulties he would have to contend with, and promising that his services would be remembered by him in his will—a promise neither meant nor fulfilled.

He remained with Chantrey until that sculptor's death in 1841; and afterwards completed his master's unfinished works. The execution of these established his character as a first-rate artist, and procured him many valuable commissions. During the time he worked as Chantrey's assistant he executed a number of original works, and exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1816 to 1830; at the British Institution between 1817 and 1822, and at the Society of British Artists from 1827 to 1837. Most of his works were subject groups and figures, but he also did a few portrait busts. A newspaper notice of the Academy exhibition of 1825, after referring to the works of Westmacott, Flaxman and Chantrey, says: "The labours of rising genius, from more humble hands, like idle lumber fill obscure shelves placed on high and in the worst possible light. Among other works condemned to this seclusion we noticed a charming marble bust on the very highest shelf, the remoteness of which could not hide its merit, by Heffernan, a young and rising artist of considerable genius, . . . that of the late Miss Hill from Norfolk." And further, referring to the sculptor's "Susannah," says: "Both these works are full of promise, and present Mr. Heffernan as standing fair for the highest rank of his profession."

Heffernan pursued his profession with success; but, his health failing, he was obliged to relinquish work and he returned to Cork where he took a cottage on the banks of the Lee. There he lived in retirement, devoting his time, as far as his broken health would allow, to sketching and to making drawings illustrating the dress and habits of the people, which he intended to publish. Attacked by dysentery he died on the 21st October, 1847. Heffernan was a man of an amiable, simple and confiding disposition. Possessing the highest talents, of great industry and an ardent lover of his art, his advancement in life was marred by diffidence, a want of reliance upon himself, and broken health.

A statue of James Watt, by Heffernan, belongs to the Royal Society. In the Cathedral at Cloyne, Co. Cork, is a monument to William Bennett, Bishop of Cloyne, who died in 1820. The bishop took a great interest in the British and Foreign Bible Society, and his monument represents a slave, or Indian, in prayer under a palm-tree, clasping a Bible. The figure was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1823. In the South Parish Church in Cork is a monument erected to Dr. McCarthy, one of the first works executed by the sculptor after his arrival in London. Other works by Heffernan were:

Sir Francis Chantrey, Medallion Portrait in bronze. [National Gallery of Scotland.]

Sir Francis Chantrey. Medallion portrait on marble tablet in Norton Church, near Sheffield.

Miss Hill. Bust. R.A., 1825.

James Stark. R.A., 1818.

Prometheus chained on Mount Caucasus. R.A., 1816; B.I., 1817.

The Rape of Proserpine. R.A., 1817; B.I., 1818.

Achilles attacked by the Waves of Scamander. R.A., 1819; B.I., 1820.

Musidora. R.A., 1821; B.I., 1822.

Ino with the Infant Bacchus. R.A., 1823.

Susannah at the Bath. R.A., 1825; Soc. B.A., 1828. Presented by the Sculptor to the Cork Institution. [School of Art, Cork.]

Salmacis. R.A., 1827; Soc. B.A., 1829. Cupid and Psyche. R.A., 1828.

The Deserted Mother. [School of Art, Cork.] R.A., 1830; Soc. B.A., 1831.

Judgment of Paris. B.I., 1818.

A Nymph discovering Cupid. B.I., 1821.

A Girl caressing a Child. [School of Art, Cork.] Soc. B.A., 1832.

Nymphs Bathing. Soc. B.A., 1837.

Hermon sustaining the dead Body of Antigone.

In the British Museum is "A Roman Boatman," drawn on stone by W. Sharp after a sketch taken from life by J. Heffernan.

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