Pioneer of Modern Art in Ireland
When the Lusitania was torpedoed in World War One, it spelled the end for one of the most intriguing figures in modern Irish history and his dream to build a modern art gallery that spanned the River Liffey in Dublin City. In the art world, Hugh Lane’s opinion was considered so important that paintings reputedly went up in value if he so much as looked at them. His legacy lives on through his bequest of 39 Impressionist paintings, including works by Monet, Renoir and Manet, which were unwittingly left to the National Gallery, London but are now shared with the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, on a cooperative rotation basis.
New York, May 1915. As he stepped on board the mighty ocean liner to make his way home, Sir Hugh Lane, director of the National Gallery of Ireland, could rest assured that things were looking up. He had finally managed to clear his personal debts by selling two 16th century masterpieces to the Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. He had also successfully courted several other influential America clients during his visit.
What the 39-year-old did not realise as he voyaged home across the Atlantic Ocean was that he would never see dry land again. He was travelling on board the Lusitania. One week after she sailed from New York, a German torpedo sank her off the Irish coast, killing nearly 1,200 people, including Hugh Lane.
The Lanes were a legal family based in Cork. Sir Hugh’s father James Lane studied divinity at Trinity College Dublin and became a Church of Ireland clergyman. In 1870 he married Adelaide Persse, of Roxburgh, near Loughrea, County Galway.
Hugh, their third son, was born in Ballybrack House in Douglas, near Cork City, on 9 November 1875. England was his home for much of his childhood, primarily Bath and Cornwall, but after his parents separated, he began spending more and more time with his mother’s sister, Augusta, Lady Gregory. She was one of the leading lights of the Gaelic Revival and went on to co-found the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with her friend, W. B. Yeats.
Lady Gregory was not initially Hugh’s greatest fan – his contrary nature tended to offend people – but she warmed to him with the passage of time. They shared a fondness for frugal living and, as noted by the historian Roy Foster, they both ‘frequently dined on a bun and a piece of fruit.’
She also recognised her nephew’s extraordinary sixth sense that enabled him to spot works by great artists, often when the owners of such works were completely oblivious of their provenance. In 1893 she secured the 18-year-old an apprenticeship with the London picture dealer Martin Colnaghi at the Marlborough Gallery in Pall Mall. One morning, Colnaghi dispatched Lane to the countryside on a buying mission. The teenager was on the cusp of returning grim-faced and empty-handed when he passed a bicycle shop and espied some tasty artwork in the window of bicycle shop. He popped in, bought a few pictures and sold them onwards for a small fortune.
Within two years, Lane was operating as an independent dealer. His genius held firm, although Lady Gregory’s extensive network was also a tremendous help. Her journals are replete with victorious references to Lane sourcing hitherto unidentified paintings and selling them on for a substantial profit. When one of the leading galleries offered him a full-time job as a buyer at an annual salary of £10,000 (over £1 million today), he declined, declaring that it would be a poor year if he only made £10,000.
In 1902, Hugh Lane went on a tour of the ‘Big Houses’ of Ireland, persuading their owners to loan their Old Masters for a ‘Winter Exhibition’ at the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts on Lower Abbey Street in Dublin. Among those he approached was the writer George Moore who recalled:
‘There came into the room a tall, thin young man, talking so fast that I gathered with difficulty there must be a great many pictures in Irish country houses that nobody had seen and that he would like to exhibit them in Dublin… he sat twisting and untwisting his legs, linking and unlinking his hands, his talk beginning to bore me a little, for I could not detect any aestheticism in him, only a nervous desire to run a show.’ 
There was considerable resistance to Lane’s proposed exhibition. Some feared Ireland would be infested by dealers seeking to relieve the aristocracy and landed gentry of art they had never hitherto considered valuable. Others anticipated an imminent rise in straight up art theft.
Lane’s Old Masters exhibition was nonetheless a tremendous success, and he was invited to become a guardian and governor of the National Gallery of Ireland. One of his first moves was to commission John Butler Yeats – father of W.B. and Jack – to paint a series of portraits of leading Irishmen of the day.
However, Lane was increasingly drawn to modern art, especially after he and his friend, the Dublin-born artist Sir William Orpen, visited the Parisian gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel in 1904 and set their eyes upon the work of the French Impressionists.
The following year, Durand-Ruel hosted a very successful Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London. Lane developed the idea of founding a gallery of modern art in Dublin to woo the Irish to the new European genre. He began collecting works for the gallery, including Claude Monet’s ‘Lavacourt under Snow’, and two by Édouard Manet, namely ‘Music in the Tuileries Gardens’ and his portrait of the French painter ‘Eva Gonzalès’, which hung in Orpen’s studio for a while. He was also an enthusiast for the Arts and Crafts activities.
By 1908, Lane was probably the world’s best-known art dealer. That same year, Dublin Corporation opened the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in the temporary location of Lord Clonmell’s old townhouse at 17 Harcourt Street. Lane choreographed its opening exhibition. One room was devoted to modern Irish artists; others were assigned to sculpture and the French Impressionists.
For his services to art, Lane was made a Freeman of the City of Dublin; the following year, he was knighted by Edward VII. That same year, he took a lease on Lindsey House, a fine London house on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where he kept many celebrated works, including ‘Forze e Amore’, a painting commissioned by Augustus John.  When the two men argued, Augustus John sold it to Lane’s cousin, Horace de Vere Cole, a celebrated prankster know to posterity as the ‘Sultan of Zanzibar.’ Augustus John later bought it back for £1,200, overpainted it with ‘The Flute of Pan’ and resold it to the American collector John Quinn.
He also commissioned a garden for the house, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.
Lane was to expend a considerable portion of his fortune on founding three art galleries. Two were in South Africa – the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Michaelis Collection (made up of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters) in Cape Town.
However, the third marked his grandest dream. He commissioned the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design a gallery for Dublin that would span both sides of the Liffey and be connected by a bridge.
The plan was submitted to Dublin Corporation along with an exceptionally generous offer by Lane to give them his entire collection of 39 modern paintings. The brilliance of Lane’s aesthetic eye was never in doubt but sometimes his timing was off-kilter.
At that time Dublin Corporation was trying to resolve a critical crisis of poverty and slum-dwelling. Most urban minds were focused on how to either prevent or encourage revolution, strike and war, rather than the brush strokes of Monet, Renoir and friends. There was also hostility to Lutyens as a ‘foreign’ architect, even though his mother hailed from Killarney, Co. Kerry.
To Lane’s fury, the Lutyens plan was rejected. He immediately transferred the offer of his collection to the National Gallery in London. They accepted but Lane was appalled by how picky they were as to which paintings they would actually exhibit; Monet’s ‘Lavacourt’ and Renoir’s ‘The Umbrellas’ both failed the cut.
Meanwhile, the outbreak of the Great War caused the European art market to all but collapse. Lane had a personal debt of at least £30,000 by the time he was appointed director of the National Gallery of Ireland on Merrion Square in 1915.
However, he scored a major triumph when he managed to buy – and quickly resell – two celebrated paintings from struggling owners, namely Titian’s ‘Man in a Red Cap’ and Holbein’s portrait of ‘Thomas Cromwell’ (made famous by Hilary Mantel in ‘Wolf Hall’). The buyer was the American multi-millionaire Henry Clay Frick, one of the richest icons of America’s Gilded Age, and the two works are now on permanent exhibition at the brilliant Frick Collection art museum in New York.
In May 1915, Lane embarked on his fateful voyage on the Lusitania, which was torpedoed as it sailed around the Old Head of Kinsale. He was last seen venturing down to the dining salon; his body was never identified. He is reputed to have been travelling with 27 circular lead tubes, containing works by Monet, Rubens, Titian and Rembrandt.
In his will, Lane left the National Gallery in Dublin an exceptional collection, including works by Goya, Claude, Gainsborough, Hogarth and El Greco. However, the spotlight soon shone on the 39 modern art paintings that he had apparently left to the National Gallery in London. A codicil to his will – written shortly before his death, but crucially never witnessed – decreed that the 39 paintings should, in fact, be left to the Municipal Gallery in Dublin.
London refused to hand them over, prompting what would be a very long campaign to get the works back to Dublin. Dublin Corporation entered the fray in 1933 when they established a new home for the Municipal Art Gallery (now the Hugh Lane Gallery) at Charlemont House on Parnell Square, deliberately leaving the walls of one room empty in anticipation of the return of Lane’s Impressionist masterpieces. 
Many heated arguments ensued before a deal to make the works available to “the people of Ireland” was brokered in 1958 by the future Lord Longford, Lord Moyne and Sir Denis Mahon. At length, it was agreed that 31 of Lane’s paintings would effectively have a permanent home in Dublin as part of the Municipal Art Collection.
The future of the eight most valuable works – by Renoir, Manet, Degas, Monet, Daumier, Pissarro and Morisot – was not so simple. The resolution was to divide them into two sets of four, which would alternate between the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and the National Gallery of London every six years. Although the actual ownership of these eight works is still contested, a new 10-year partnership was agreed between the National Gallery, London and the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, in February 2021. Under the terms of the agreement, 10 paintings will rotate in two groups of five, for five years in each location, allowing the public in both the UK and Ireland to continue enjoying works such as ‘Umbrellas’ by Renoir, ‘Eva Gonzalès’ by Manet, ‘Jour d’Été’ by Berthe Morisot and ‘View of Louveciennes’ by Camille Pissarro.
- Cullen, Fintan, ‘The Lane Bequest: Giving Art to Dublin’, Field Day Review, 4 (2008): 187–201.
- Cullen, Fintan, ed., ‘The Lane Bequest: Displaying the Modern’, in Ireland on Show: Art, Union and Nationhood (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), chapter 5.
- O’Byrne, Robert, ‘Hugh Lane’ (The Lilliput Press, 2000)
- O’Neill, Morna, ‘Decorative Politics and Direct Pictures: Hugh Lane and the Global Art Market, 1900-15’ in The Rise of the Modern Art Market in London, 1850–1939, ed. Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)
With thanks to Annie Barclay, Robert O’Byrne, Faenia Moore and Ros Dee.
 The success of Lane’s later Impressionist exhibition in Dublin was somewhat muted when Moore seized the opportunity to lambast the conservatism of Catholic Ireland and point to the Impressionists as beacons of a brave, new and infinitely more liberal future. Eager not to offend sensibilities, Lane played Moore’s remarks down.