A portrait of the art collector
Sir Hugh Lane left a marvellous legacy to the people of Dublin and a gallery which bears his name.
Published 25/04/2015 | 02:00
The best-known victim of the sinking of the Lusitania, certainly in Ireland, was a west Cork-born art collector and dealer called Hugh Lane, who also took some priceless masterpieces to a watery grave with him.
Lane - who was in first-class cabin D26 on his final voyage - was returning to Ireland with fellow connoisseurs Charles and Frances Fowles. He brought with him 27 tubes made from lead which were reported to have contained paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Monet, destined for exhibition at the National Gallery in Dublin. They were insured for $4million, a sum estimated at $93million in modern currency.
On board the ship he played cards with Lady Marguerite Allan, wife of a Canadian shipping owner, and Dr Fred Pearson, an American engineer, and made a £10,000 donation to the Red Cross for its war relief efforts. On the morning of the sinking, Lane was seen on deck looking out at the Irish coast before descending to the dining room. His body, and the paintings, were never recovered.
Lane's life began 39 years earlier and just 25 miles from where it ended, at Ballybrack House, Douglas, in Cork. He was the fifth son of eight born to a clergyman and his wife, whose sister, Augusta Persse, was later known as Lady Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theatre. Although he was brought up in Cornwall, he stayed in touch with the land of his birth through his regular visits to Coole Park, Co Galway, home of his Aunt Augusta.
Hugh Lane was born in November 1875. His family background was rackety and he was educated spasmodically by a private tutor.
Aged 18, and penniless, Lady Gregory fixed him up with a job as an art dealer with Colnaghi's of London and later the Marlborough Gallery. Lane had an exceptional eye for quality and capacity for hard work and in 1898 he opened his own gallery in London. In 1901 he met WB Yeats and attended a joint exhibition of works by the poet's father and Nathaniel Hone.
Lane quickly built up a stunning collection of modern and contemporary art, but it was the work of the Old Masters that he exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in the winter of 1902-03 before, in 1904, a collection of French Impressionists.
He began to lobby for a gallery for modern art in the city, and in 1907 Dublin Corporation offered him the former townhouse of the Earls of Clonmel in Harcourt Street. The city also offered an annual grant of £500 to help run the gallery and the Freedom of the City, in 1908, while the King gave him a knighthood for services to Irish art the following year.
In 1907 Lane was overlooked for the job of Curator of the National Museum in favour of Count George Plunkett, father of the 1916 signatory, Joseph. The poet Yeats was annoyed, as Lady Gregory recounted: "It was, in his mind, one of the worst of crimes, that neglect to use the best man, the man of genius, in place of the timid obedient official."
In January 1914 Lane became director of the National Gallery of Ireland but returned his salary of £500 to a fund for purchase of paintings. He presented six Old Masters to the gallery and also decided to bequeath his remarkable collection of more than 150 works of art to the city of Dublin where he hoped a gallery would be provided to house them.
Public meetings were held to support Lane and an appeal for funds launched. Plans were drawn up for a suitably grandiose building, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The first building would have occupied a corner of St Stephen's Green but was vetoed by the descendent of the Guinness family which donated the park. Lane's favourite site, however, incorporated the gallery in a new bridge across the Liffey.
The gallery was not a popular cause in an era when hundreds of thousands of people lived in tenement slums and politicians were mostly concerned with the national question. (Lane himself said he became an Irish nationalist when he discovered the windows of the Vice-Regal Lodge couldn't be cleaned without an order from London.)
The opposition to the gallery was led by the powerful newspaper proprietor and employers' leader William Martin Murphy who said, "I would rather see in the city of Dublin one block of sanitary houses at low rents replacing a reeking slum than all the pictures Corot and Degas ever painted."
However, union leader Jim Larkin supported the project, proposing a motion at the Dublin Trades Council "that Martin Murphy should be condemned to keep an art gallery in hell".
WB Yeats, again, was drawn into the furore and wrote one of his greatest poems, September 1913, as an attack on Lane's opponents who mostly came from the commercial classes.
The poem was originally titled 'Romance in Ireland (On reading much of the correspondence against the Art Gallery)' and began:
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow
from the bone
For men were born to pray and save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
The Corporation had actually voted £22,000 to the project and more still was raised privately, but Lane's insistence on hiring Lutyens and on the Liffey site was provocative - the view down the river would have been blocked and the Ha'penny bridge demolished or moved, which is what brought Murphy into the row.
Incensed by the city fathers' reluctance to acquiesce to his planned gallery, Lane drew up a will leaving his 39 French paintings to the National Gallery in London. But just weeks before he died he added an unwitnessed codicil which left them to the city of Dublin. This change was signed three times but unwitnessed, which led to years of often bitter dispute over where the paintings should reside.
In 1959, Taoiseach Seán Lemass brokered a compromise whereby, every five years, half the bequest would be shown in Dublin. In 1975, the centenary of Lane's birth, the Municipal Art Gallery in Parnell Square was renamed in honour of its generous benefactor and is now called the Dublin City Gallery Hugh Lane.
In 1993 the agreement was changed so that 31 of the 39 paintings would stay at the gallery. In 2008 the entire collection was put on display in Dublin together for the first time and the works continue to be shared.
In 2013 the National Gallery in London sent over four of the eight shared paintings by renowned French Impressionist painters, including Les Parapluies by Auguste Renoir. A new exhibition 'Sir Hugh Lane 1875-1915: Dublin's Legacy and Loss', runs in Parnell Square from 30 April to 4 October.
But what of the paintings that Lane was carrying across the Atlantic? In 1994, a UK diver called Polly Tapson claimed to have identified the lead tubes which held the priceless works. The Minister for Arts, now President Michael D Higgins, slapped a Heritage Protection Order on the wreck which curbed further exploration.
Perhaps in the future some of Hugh Lane's extraordinary cargo will surface into the light of day.
The Lusitania by numbers
Length: 787 feet/240 metres
Gross tonnage: 31,550
The Lusitania's rudder weighed 56 tons and anchors 10.25 tons each
30,000 tons First ship to weigh more than this
First ship to cross the Atlantic in under five days
840 Tons of coal per day
Speed: 25 knots, max 26.35
4 million Rivets used in building
2,165 Passenger capacity: 563 first class, 464 second, 1,138 third
850 Crew capacity: 69 deck, 389 victualling, 369 engineering
Lifeboats: 22 standard, 16 collapsibles
Passengers on final voyage
First class: 113 survived, 177 died (39% survival rate)
Second class: 229 survived, 372 died (38% survival rate)
Third class: 134 survived, 236 died (36% survival rate)
Crew: 291 survived, 402 died (42% survival rate)
124 children on board: 94 perished, including 31 of 35 infants