Ireland has every possibility of getting back the 39 controversial paintings, willed to the Irish people by art collector Sir Hugh Lane at the beginning of the 20th century, but which remain in London because the codicil to his will was not witnessed. “Hugh Lane’s intentions were absolutely clear”, the dynamic director of the Hugh Lane (formerly Dublin City ) Gallery, Ms Barbara Dawson said in Coole last weekend, “there is no reason on earth why the paintings are not on Irish soil permanently.”
The Hugh Lane Bequest is still a vexed issue. This year marked the centenary when Lane, who had a genius for collecting famous pictures (many of which he bought for a song ), offered to present more than 100 mainly Impressionist paintings to Ireland, providing Dublin built an appropriate gallery for them. He showed all the paintings to an appreciative audience in Clonmel House in 1908. But Dublin City Council dragged its heels to such an extent, that Lane withdrew 39 of the best pictures in the collection, and wrote a will leaving them to the London National Art Gallery, of which he was a director.
However, the move was to put pressure on Dublin City Council to hurry up, and provide a gallery. He wrote a codicil to his will, leaving the entire collection to Dublin. But because it was never witnessed, and he was killed unexpectedly when the Luistania was torpedoed off the Head of Kinsale on May 7 1915, the codicil was deemed invalid. London chose to ignore the moral issue involved, and to and seize the legal argument justifying their holding on to the pictures. Apart from being representative of the finest artists of their day, the collection is worth many millions.
To celebrate the centenary this year, London agreed to allow the entire Hugh Lane collection to be shown in Dublin. But only for three months. The exhibition was a huge success, attracting more than 80,000 visitors. During the negotiations to bring the controversial paintings to Dublin, Ms Dawson detected a certain embarrassment among the present directors of the London National Gallery regarding . She believed that it would be fruitless to revive all the legal arguments again, but that improved relations between the two countries could achieve a positive outcome. Asked if there was an opportunity, where Britain could release the paintings without loss of face, Ms Dawson suggested that there is some talk that if the Queen of England were to make a formal visit to Dublin, an appropriate gift could be the return of the Lane pictures.
Eva Gonzales’ limbs
Hugh Lane was a nephew of Lady Gregory of Coole. He frequently visited her home, and met the men and women at the core of the literary revival. He wanted to contribute to the movement by providing a brilliant collection of paintings which would inspire young Irish artists. “He was way before his time,” said Ms Dawson. “While the Kaiser fired his art gallery director for buying a Cézanne, Lane was snapping them up.” One of his great buys was Édouard Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzales, a famous painter herself. A particular feature are her white arms. George Moore took one look at them and said; “Thank God that now we can gaze upon the heavenly limbs of Eva, rather than the withered limbs of martyred saints.”
The historian Madeleine Humphreys talked about Catholic landlords in the lead up to the War of Independence, many of whom Padraic Pearse called “irresponsible beings.” Lady Gregory, a landlord herself, resented these remarks. As a young woman, closely involved in the Gaelic literary revival, she believed that she and Yeats were the true revolutionaries. She looked with haughty scorn on Pearse and his school at Rathfarnham, St Enda’s. ‘These RCs are timid,” she remarked, “ and haven’t the courage of a mouse.”
However, following the Easter Rising, she had matured politically. She acknowledged that the rebels provided ‘fearless and imaginative opposition, who have helped us with our work’. “Beside them, we seem a little insincere,” she said.
The acclaimed playwright, author and teacher Tom Kilroy spoke about Lady Gregory’s skill in meeting the ambitions of WB Yeats who believed the Abbey Theatre must also reflect European drama. Gregory obliged by taking the plays by the French writer Moliere, and translating them into ‘Kiltartanese’, the colloquial language of country people. The plays were enormously popular with Dublin audiences. Kilroy, who has adapted plays of Chekhov, Ibsen and Pirandella is impressed by her skill. His London agent, Peggy Ramsey, gave him advice that he found useful: ‘Adaptation is a form of privileged conversation with the dead writer. It unlocks the mysteries of the play.’
“Lady Gregory,” he said, “had privileged conversations with Moliere.”
The author Christopher Fitz-Simon gave a very amusing account of various Big Houses in various manifestations of creativity, eccentricity and dullness. As a child he spent some time in Annaghmakerig, the Guthrie home in Co Monaghan. It is now an artist’s retreat, supported by the Arts Councils of both the North of Ireland, and Dublin. ‘The literature is now produced in abundance, as acknowledged by Anne Enright, Jennifer Johnston, Colm Toibin and many others - yet as a literary forcing -house Annaghmakerrig must be categorised as artificial. Coole, by contrast, was organic.’
“ I think that was Coole’s great achievement at the turn of the 20th century; how it attained its stature and reached its apotheosis naturally, without predisposition, without memoranda and articles of association. It just happened because of the character of the woman who was, for the time being, the lady of the house.”
A highlight of the weekend was a guided visit to Tulira castle, Ardrahan, the former home of Edward Martyn. Martyn, a Catholic landlord (whose agent was shot at the gates of Coole ), was a friend of WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, with whom he founded the Irish Literary Theatre. He was also the first president of Sinn Féin, and a generous subscriber to Irish church art. He was involved in an unmerciful row when he shouted in the Kildare Street Club, that “ all Irishmen who join the English army ought to be flogged”. As many of the members were in the British armed forces, he was sued by the club. But trapped in his Dublin house during the 1916 Rising he was grateful when the same club sent him his meals.
His home, once a Burke tower house, has been magnificently restored by Rudd and Femmy Bolmeijer. A great effort has been made to source and buy the original furniture, table silver, and stained glass. The house and walled garden is stately but homely, and a credit to the Bolmeijers’ passion and dedication.
— Ronnie O’Gorman