Brief History of the founding of the Gallery and the Sir Hugh Lane Bequest

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Hugh Lane, nephew of Lady Gregory, is greatly influenced by the Celtic Revival in literature and starts a campaign to champion Irish art alongside that of Irish writers.



Lane is brought by artist Sarah Purser to an exhibition of paintings by Nathanial Hone and John Butler Yeats (JBY), father of Willie and Jack, which she organised in no 6 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

Lane commissions John Butler Yeats to paint portraits of notable Irish Personalities (now in the collection), JBY remarking how rare it was to receive paid commissions in Dublin.

May 1904

In a significant step towards Irish Cultural independence, Lane organised the first even exhibition of Irish art in London’s Guildhall to astounding success. This was the beginning of his project to establish a gallery of modern art for Ireland. Many artists who exhibited in that exhibition pledged works to this gallery.

November 1904

Lane organised an exhibition in the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, to publicly display the paintings already pledged for the new gallery. He borrowed French Impressionist paintings from the famous Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and also an impressive group of French 19th French Landscape paintings and other works from the estate of the Scottish Industrialist James Staats Forbes. By the time the exhibition opened, Lane had personally pledged 38 paintings for the gallery. His supporters rallied to his cause and bought works either individually or through subscriptions as can be seen in their credit lines. A substantial numbers of works were acquired for the gallery and Lane now looked for practical support from the local authority Dublin Corporation (now known as Dublin City Council).

February 1905

Dublin Corporation met and ‘noted their appreciation of the generosity of Mr Hugh P Lane and others who had conditionally presented to the city the valuable collection of paintings representative of the modern school of art..’ On the 24th March the Estates and Finance Committee recommended that £500 be allocated for the maintenance of the gallery of modern art. A recommendation was made that Clonmell House, 17 Harcourt Street, be used as a temporary art gallery. Hugh Lane made the first director.

20th January 1908

The Gallery first opened to the public in Clonmell House, Harcourt Street. The French newspaper Le Figaro wrote an article on the gallery: ‘To create an entire museum rich in beautiful works, a museum envied by the most prosperous states and the proudest cities and then to give this treasure to a town that one loves – that is ultimate gesture of this ingenious man’

In recognition for his services to art and to Dublin’s cultural life, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Joseph Patrick Nannetti, bestowed on Hugh Lane the Freedom of the City.

June 1909

Hugh Lane is included in the King Edward VII’s birthday honours with a knighthood in recognition of his services to art.


The indefatigable Hugh Lane went on to establish a Gallery of Modern Art in Johannesburg. This came about through his network of collectors and entrepreneurs in London including the South African Florence Philips who was married to Sir Lionel Philips a mining magnet. Lady Philips was the financial driving force behind the establishment of the gallery.

Back in Dublin, the search for a suitable permanent site for the art gallery was proving very difficult and aroused much opposition from Dublin’s merchant class including the very wealthy press baron William Martin Murphy.


By November, losing patience, Lane wrote to the Town Clerk, ‘I hereby hand over to the Corporation of Dublin the works of art named in the enclosed list (list 1) The other pictures etc. (list 2) ‘Lane Collection’ will be removed from Dublin at the end of January 1913 if the building of a new and suitable Gallery is not decided upon. But, if the provision of a Gallery is definitely arranged for, the pictures and sculptures will remain on loan until it is built when they will also be given to the city.’

18th November 1912

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Dr Lorcan Shylock, called a public meeting on 29th November in the Mansion House for supporters of the gallery. The Citizens Provisional Committee was elected and charged with acquiring a site and fundraising to supplement the Corporation grant. Sarah Cecilia Harrison (the first woman ever to be elected to DCC, a staunch supporter of Hugh Lane and an artist of considerable talent) was the secretary with the Lord Mayor as one of the four treasurers. Subscriptions were immediately forthcoming. There was support from the Labour leader James Larkin, founder of the Workers Union, for the gallery.

20th January 1913

Dublin Corporation held a special meeting and passed a resolution granting £22,000 to build a gallery provided the Citizens Provisional Committee provide a suitable site and an additional £3,000 towards the building of the gallery.

Possible sites included the Old Turkish Baths in Lincoln Place, a disused skating rink in Earlsfort Terrace, blocks of houses on both Essex Quay and Ormond Quay and a site in St Stephen’s Green. The costs of these sites however proved prohibitive and Lord Iveagh was vehemently opposed to a site being provided in St Stephen’s Green.

In an attempt to resolve the site question, the English architect Edwin Lutyens, a friend of Lane’s, suggested erecting a gallery over the river Liffey replacing the Ha’penny Bridge. There were a number of objections to the proposal including that Lutyens was not an Irish architect, the suitability of having an art gallery over a major river and building an art gallery at a time of a housing crisis. Press Baron William Martin Murphy lambasted the Lord Mayor and the Committee. Nonetheless, subscriptions continued to come in.

August 1913

Lane removed his 39 pictures from Clonmell House. Following negotiations with the Lord Mayor, he agreed to leave them in the city for another 6 weeks.

8th September 1913

The Lord Mayor held a crucial meeting of the City Council. At this meeting, the site proposal was rejected on the grounds that a) DCC should select the site and b) Sir Edwin Lutyens was English.

W.B Yeats’s fiercely polemic poem September 1913, inspired by these events was published in the Irish Times under the title of Romance in Ireland.

27th September 1913

Lane removed his pictures from Dublin. They were sent on loan to the National Gallery, London, where he was promised an exhibition of his pictures to open on 20th January 1914.

October 1913

Lane made a new will (he was forever making wills) leaving these pictures to the National Gallery, London, to ‘found a collection of modern continental art in London’.

February 1914

A row with London ensued when The Trustees reneged on their promise to have an exhibition of all of Lane’s pictures. They selected 15 (relegating Renoir and other masterpieces to the basement) and would only exhibit them on condition that Lane promised to bequeath them or present them. Lane was extremely annoyed. Although he had made a will leaving them to London, he refused to tell them so. ‘If I thought the giving of the collection to London would mean that steps were taken to create a Gallery of modern continental art (sic) which I feel is a crying want, I should be greatly tempted to give them, but I refuse any definite promise as I do not intend to act hastily.

February 1914

Lane was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Ireland. He donated over 40 pictures to the NGI during his short tenure.


February Lane wrote a codicil to his will of 1913 reversing his decision to give the paintings to London and left them to Dublin instead. He signed and initialled the codicil but did not have it witnessed.

April Went to New York as expert witness for Lloyds to ascertain damage to paintings that were aboard a ship, which had caught fire in New York harbour.

May Sailed back on the Cunard Ocean Liner RMS Lusitania, which was first launched in 1906 and was the largest passenger ship in the world at that time.

7th May

Death of Sir Hugh Lane. The RMS Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Cork. 1,198 passengers died, including Lane. His body was never recovered.

His will was read, leaving his 39 pictures to London. Then the Codicil was found in his desk in the National Gallery of Ireland. As it was not witnessed, it was deemed not to be legal under English law. Despite Sir Hugh‘s wishes, the Trustees upheld his will and kept the paintings amid uproar in Ireland and amongst many people in U.K.

Championing the return of the Sir Hugh Lane Bequest Paintings and Loan Agreements


DCC requested the National Gallery London to honour Sir Hugh Lane’s last wishes and return the pictures.


Campaign for the return of the pictures began with Lady Gregory’s published pamphlet Sir Hugh Lane’s French Pictures.


DCC unanimously passed a motion resolving to provide a gallery for the pictures on condition that London returned them to Dublin.

In May the Seanad of the Irish Free State passed a resolution asking the Executive of the Irish Free State to press the British for the return of the pictures. This was followed by a resolution in Dáil Eireann followed by immediate representations to the British Government asking them to introduce legislation that would enable the pictures to be returned to Ireland.


The Executive of the Irish Free State appointed three commissioners who temporarily superseded the Corporation and who passed a resolution agreeing to provide a suitable gallery for the pictures within the five-year term should they be restored to Dublin by an act of Parliament.

A British Government Committee was set up to establish whether or not Lane thought he was making a legal deposition when he wrote his codicil. If so, should the legal defect be remedied by legislation? The Committee found, as was expected, that Lane thought he was making a legal deposition with his codicil. However, they advised the British Government against giving it legal effect. To do so would be ‘extraordinary and unprecedented’ despite the fact that the British Government has in specific cases upheld the wishes of the deceased, including Cecil Rhodes’s will.

The Committee suggested DCC should ask for the loan of some of the paintings.

The Friends of the National Collections of Ireland led by the artist Sarah Purser continued to champion for the return of the paintings.


Sarah Purser identified Charlemont House as being a suitable building for the city collection and intervened with the Government.

The Minister for Finance through Office of Public Works informed Dublin Corporation that Charlemont House would be placed at their disposal for a small rent provided the city pay for its conversion to a suitable art gallery. The conversion of Charlemont House was successfully carried out by the then city architect Horace T.O ’Rourke.


The gallery was formally opened in Charlemont House by President Éamon de Valera. Lobbying for the return of the 39 pictures continued,


Two Irish students Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty, in a publicity stunt to highlight the issue stole one of the 39 paintings, Berthe Morisot Summer’s Day from the Tate Gallery. This caused a huge furore in both Ireland and England much to both Governments’ embarrassment. However, the students were not prosecuted and their stunt was one of the catalysts for securing the first 1st Loan Agreement in 1959. The new agreement negotiations were overseen by Sir Denis Mahon, one of the Trustees of the National Gallery, London. The paintings were divided into two groups and alternated between the two galleries every five years for twenty years.


2nd Loan Agreement. This time thirty of the thirty-nine paintings remained in Dublin and eight remained in London with Renoir’s Umbrellas rotating every seven years. Most of the renowned eight Impressionist works were in the group that stayed in London.


3rd Loan Agreement. Negotiations for Dublin’s access to the Impressionist paintings collection were tough. Eventually it was agreed that the eight would be divided into two groups of four, Groups A and B, which would alternate every six years.


4th Agreement completed on the 24th February 2021.