In the closing weeks of the summer of 1913, there was intense activity at Coole Park, the heart of the Celtic Literary Revival. The considerable energies of both Lady Gregory and WB Yeats were fully committed to supporting Gregory’s nephew Hugh Lane, and his quest to establish a municipal gallery of modern art in Dublin.
Lane had offered a fantastic collection of old and new master paintings (which included works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Pissarro and others, valued at the time, at least £70,000 ) to Dublin Corporation on condition it agreed to build an art gallery. He further asked that it subscribed the sum of £10,000 towards the project. He appealed to other organisations for financial help. The Abbey Theatre, of which Lady Gregory and WB were directors, had pledged £1,000.
Hugh Percy Lane was an interesting man. He was Lady Gregory’s nephew, the son of her sister Frances Adelaide Persse of Roxborough, near Loughrea. Her marriage to Rev James Lane, was not a happy one. Hugh’s childhood was miserable and unstable; but he loved his aunt Augusta, and spent holidays at Coole. He developed a keen interest in the fine arts. As a young man he worked for a number of galleries, building up an exceptional skill in recognising the old masters and new emerging talent, and a genius for buying and collecting. He was excited by the new artistic talent emerging in early 20th century Ireland, meeting many new artists such as John Butler Yeats, William Orpen, Augustus John, and Gerald Kelly at Coole. Lane’s idea was that a gallery giving artists access to works by established and emerging artists would be a place of reference and inspiration.
A temporary gallery was opened at Harcourt Street, the first gallery of modern art in Europe, which proved to be immensely popular. Everyone was excited. Lane was made a Freeman of Dublin, and appointed a member of the governing body of UCD.
He continued to work at collecting and dealing paintings for galleries in South Africa, and significantly for the National Gallery of London, where he was a director. He received a knighthood from King Edward VII for services to art.
His plans for Dublin, however, were on a grande scale. Lane had asked Edwin Lutyens, considered the greatest architect of his day, to design a gallery which would give modern art the same provenance as galleries displaying the great classics of painting and sculpture, while at the same time reflecting the new Ireland, the Ireland of Home Rule, which he expected would be won shortly.
Lutyens came up with a magnificent design. It included a gallery within a bridge spanning the River Liffy. At first Dublin Corporation was delighted with the idea. Lord Mayor Sherlock fully supported the plan. But when he left to spend the summer in America, many councillors began to shake their heads. Support began to unravel. Other less ambitious sites were suggested, such as Merrion Square, but Lane flatly refused to change his dream. He threatened that if the Lutyens design did not happen he would give his paintings, 114 in all, to London and Scotland.
Yeats and Gregory shared Lane’s anger and frustration. They saw this back-tracking as another struggle between the intellectual and the artistic movement (which, of course, he saw himself and Lady Gregory leading ), and ‘ a little huckster nation’. After the Playboy riots six years previously, when audiences booed and jeered the writer’s portrayal of Irish womanhood, Yeats was ready again to champion artistic freedom against what he and Gregory saw as the narrow moral, and bigoted concepts of the time.
But the final nail in the coffin of Lane’s gallery was delivered by the president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, William Martin Murphy. Murphy was a powerful and very influential man in the city. He owned Cleary’s department store, Independent newspapers, and significantly, the entire tram-way system in Dublin. He was by far the biggest employer in the city. A veto from Murphy was a killer blow.
‘Groping for halfpence’
That the whole scheme came to an end was probably due to bad timing. During August there was serious labour unrest. James Larkin, a socialist firebrand, founder of the ITGWU, and co- founder with James Connolly of the Labour Party, fiercely campaigned for better working conditions and wages in a city with the worst slums in Europe. There were large scale public meetings, vicious rioting, even men killed. . Larkin was obsessed with organising Murphy’s companies. Murphy retaliated by forming a cartel of employers who ‘ locked out’ any member of their staff who joined the ITGWU. On September 4 Dublin virtually came to a standstill. It was a tragic and appalling stand off between the two sides. It was to last four harrowing months.
Yeats, who supported the working men, probably didn’t realise that the ‘lock out’ would last for so long. In early September 1913, he was still focused on the Lane story. Addressing a fundraising Abbey Theatre production at the Court Theatre in London, he lamented the demise of the Lutyens’ gallery. He told the audience that ‘the intellectual workers in Ireland see gathering against them all the bigotries - the bigotries of Dublin that have succeeded in keeping ‘The Golden Treasury’ out of the schools, the bigotries of Belfast that have turned Nietzsche out of the public libraries. If Hugh Lane is defeated, hundreds of young men and women all over the country will be discouraged, will choose a poorer idea of what might be. Ireland will for many years become a little huckstering nation, groping for halfpence in a greasy till. It is that or the fulfilment of our better dreams.’
Lady Gregory was a little more circumspect in her thoughts on the matter. She criticised her nephew for not accepting an alternative site. In all her aristocratic hauteur she pronounced: “The ungraciousness of Hugh, and the vulgarity of the opposition, and the contempt shown towards art, makes one ashamed as one so often is, of Dublin.”
Yeats sharpens his pen.
Sources: I am taking the quotes from RF Foster’s great biography: WB Yeats: A Life Vol. I, published Oxford University Press 1997.