How Ireland lost thirty nine famous paintings

Beautiful rain: Renoir's famous Les Parapluies (The Umbrellas 1883) is one of the controversial Lane Pictures, caught up in a legal wrangle and kept in the National Gallery of London.

Beautiful rain: Renoir's famous Les Parapluies (The Umbrellas 1883) is one of the controversial Lane Pictures, caught up in a legal wrangle and kept in the National Gallery of London.

The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7 1915, off the Cork coast, by a German submarine electrified Ireland, Britain and America. In Ireland, the fact that German submarines were lurking so close to the Irish shore, added fuel to the propaganda that Germany was planning to invade the country. It spurred recruitment into the armed forces. In Britain, the shameful practice of using passenger liners to carry munitions across the Atlantic without telling the passengers they were in effect travelling on a British war ship, was to come to an end.

But it was too late for more than 1,000 men, women, and children who lost their lives. And ironically for Germany, the Lusitania proved to be a Pearl Harbour. Among the dead were 114 Americans which caused such an outcry in the US that it led to their coming into the war, and ultimate victory for the Allies.

Closer to home the impact was deeply felt. Among the dead was Lady Augusta Gregory's favourite nephew, the art connoisseur, collector, and generous benefactor to the Irish nation, Sir Hugh Lane. He was the son of her favourite sister Adelaide, who despite a modest upbringing in the Co Cork household of an Anglican clergyman, taught himself about great paintings. As a young man he began to recognise important pictures that experts had missed, and buy many of them for a song. He amassed collections for the National Galleries of Cape Town, London, and Dublin. He returned Augusta's affection, and wanted to follow her example and contribute to the cultural revolution that was emanating from her home at Coole, Co Galway. His big project was to present a substantial collection of important paintings to Dublin Corporation on condition it provided a suitable gallery to contain them. His collection opened on January 20 1908, on a temporary basis, at Clonmel House, Harcourt Street.

Lane was knighted for his services to Ireland, but he could be an awkward man at times. He did not suffer lightly those whom he considered fools. He became irritated by Dublin's shilly shallying over the provision of a gallery, and in a fit of pique, withdrew 39 of the most important pictures from the collection, and made a will leaving them to the National Gallery of London.

Courted death

Lane's death hit Lady Gregory like a blow. Her friend and former lover John Quinn telegrammed from New York to say that Lane was on the Lusitania. She had recently been in America on a lecture tour, and had taken Quinn's advice to return to Europe only on American ships, which had, at the time, immunity from submarine attack. Her admirer George Bernard Shaw was a guest at Coole when the news came. The house was in turmoil. He left for London the next day. His large car was recognised by journalists when he stopped in Birr. He was surrounded and questioned. "Sir Hugh," Shaw said, "was one of the best fellows I ever met, and Lady Gregory and all his relatives and friends are terribly distressed about him."

In Judith Hill's excellent biography* we learn about Gregory's reaction. 'There was a howl of despair; it was almost as if her own child had gone.' When Shaw offered help, "I said," she later wrote in her memoir, "I longed to be alone, to cry, to mourn, to scream if I wished. I wanted to be out of hearing and sight."

But typical of Gregory, the Abbey Theatre was about to embark on a tour in London, and she left Coole almost immediately to join them. She stayed at the Hotel Gwalia, in Upper Woburn Place, visiting no one socially during her stay. Lane's sister, Ruth Shine, had failed to recover Hugh's body at Queenstown where both the dead and the survivors were brought ashore. She had learnt that he had faced death calmly, without wearing a life belt. An American survivor had reportedly said that Lane had courted death by wedging himself into the companion ladder. Judith Hill suggests that there may be some truth in this. All first class passengers had life belts; he might have welcomed death when he saw it coming. He died within sight of his birthplace.

WB could be cracked

When things calmed down a little Gregory instinctively felt that Lane left a codicil to his will leaving the 39 paintings to Dublin. Lane had told a colleague that he' would let London have his paintings to give Dublin a shake up, but at the end of the day, it was his intention that Dublin should have them. But was there a codicil to say so?

WB Yeats, who could be a bit cracked at times, contacted his spiritualist friend Elizabeth Radcliff, in the hope that Lane's spirit would reveal through 'automatic writing' whether a codicil existed; and if one did, where it was. This went on for some time until Gregory, always a very practical woman, suggested that a search be made of Lane's desk at the Dublin Gallery. Immediately it was found. It was dated two months before his death, but significantly, it was not witnessed. This led to years of argument and wrangling, and unfortunately for Ireland, was never resolved (Yeats, however, was pleased that the codicil was revealed by 'Lane's spirit.' )!

No moral claim

Despite the death of her son Robert in 1918, the trauma of the War of Independence and the Civil War, the demands of the Abbey Theatre, the sale of Coole and her growing genteel poverty, Lady Gregory vigorously pursued her quest for the Lane pictures during the final 17 years of her life. She wrote hundreds of letters, called meetings, wrote a book, visited various influential people, all the while suffering "the grittiness of official discourtesy" in her efforts to get her nephew's codicil recognised, and his 39 paintings returned to Dublin. The National Gallery of London knew it had a treasure, and was not prepared to part with the pictures. Furthermore, it would have taken an Act of Parliament to legalise the codicil; and no politician was prepared to support such a measure.

One friend gave us this picture of her efforts: ' I remember her trudging in the rain in London to come and see me, as she thought that I, being a friend of George Curzon, would be able to persuade him to hand over the collection to Dublin. Her umbrella dripped all the time on my best Chinese carpet, and George Curzon refused to give up the pictures' (Lord Curzon, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the London National Gallery refused to recognise the codicil, and insisted that his gallery was legally entitled to keep the paintings ). Curzon, and his powerful friends, insisted that legal complications outweighed moral claims.

And there the matter rested. A sort of a compromise was eventually hammered out in 1959, 22 years after Lady Gregory's death, which allowed the complete collection to be seen in part, and in rotation between the Dublin and London galleries; but never allowed to be shown in its entirity.

Until seven years ago, 2008. To mark the opening of the Lane collection at Clonmel House 100 years before that, Dublin and London decided to bury the hatchet for a brief period. The entire collection was presented in Dublin at the Dublin City Gallery, also known as the Hugh Lane. Located in the splendid Lord Charlemont House in Parnell Square, at the top of O'Connell Street, it is a worthy Hugh Lane Gallery, and in my opinion it is by far the finest gallery in Ireland.


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