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The Hugh Lane bequest

The story of masterpieces collected by Sir Hugh Lane

Sir Hugh Lane was born in Ireland in 1875 but raised in England and on the Continent. By the turn of the 20th century, he had established a successful London career as a dealer in Old Master paintings.

His principal clients were in America and South Africa. At about the same time, he reconnected with his Irish roots, notably with his aunt, the writer Augusta, Lady Gregory of Coole Park, and her circle of literary and artistic friends at the centre of the Celtic Revival, including William Butler Yeats, George Moore, Sean O’Casey and John Synge. From the moment he reconnected with his aunt, Moore noted, Lane “must always be doing for Ireland.” His chief project, to which he devoted tireless energy and many years of his life, was the establishment of a municipal gallery of modern art in Dublin. It would have been the first gallery specifically devoted to modern art in the world.

To this end, Lane mounted exhibitions of modern art in the city, encouraged collectors to purchase and donate works to the proposed gallery, and formed his own collection of 39 ‘Modern Continental’ (essentially French Impressionist) French pictures. They ranged from central masterpieces of the modern tradition – Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens of 1862, for example, and Renoir’s Umbrellas of about 1881–6 – to relatively minor works meant to show that almost anyone could afford to give to the Municipal Gallery.

Lane loaned the pictures to the Dublin gallery when temporary accommodations opened in January 1908, and he intended to donate them as soon as a suitable permanent home was constructed. To this end, he commissioned no less an architect than Edwin Lutyens to design two separate gallery projects, one for St. Stephen’s Green, the other straddling the River Liffey, neither realised. For his part, W.B. Yeats wrote three magnificent poems in support of the project.

Yet by July 1913 no site had been chosen for the gallery. Lane offered the 39 paintings on loan to the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery accepted the offer and the paintings arrived in London in September. In his will of 11 October 1913, Lane went on to bequeath the paintings to the National Gallery, London “to found a Collection of Modern Continental Art in London.” The Trustees of the National Gallery knew nothing of this will. A few months later, in January 1914, they decided that they wished to show only 15 of the 39 paintings and questioned Lane about his intentions for their eventual disposition. Negotiations stalled and plans for displaying the pictures were abandoned.

In spring 1914, Lane was named Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) and henceforth devoted his considerable energies to that institution. Many of his Old Master paintings went there. He sailed to America on business in April 1915; on the return voyage in May on the 'Lusitania' the ship was torpedoed, and sank within sight of the Irish coast. Lane was one of the 1,198 passengers and crew who lost their lives.

When Lane’s desk at the NGI was cleared, a codicil to his will dated 3 February 1915 was discovered, revoking the original bequest and leaving the 39 pictures to Dublin instead, stipulating that a suitable building be provided for them within five years of his death. The codicil was signed but not witnessed and therefore legally invalid, consequently the National Gallery became the owner of the works. Following Irish independence Lady Gregory and Lane’s friends took up the cause of the pictures now owned by the National Gallery, demanding that they be returned to Ireland. The campaign to return the pictures to Dublin was led by Lady Gregory until her death in 1932, and subsequently by Thomas Bodkin, Director of the NGI until 1935.

The National Gallery’s Trustees are not permitted to de-accession their collection, but can only make transfers to certain British museums or galleries. As early as 1 December 1916, the Trustees indicated that, if the National Gallery’s ownership of the pictures was recognised, they would consider some form of loan of the paintings to Dublin. This principle was reiterated in 1926, and again in a report of 1957 by Sir Denis Mahon (1910–2011), then a National Gallery Trustee.

The loan agreements

In 1959, it was agreed that display of the Hugh Lane paintings would be split between London and Dublin, and that two groups of pictures would move between the National Gallery, London and what is now known as the Hugh Lane Gallery, Charlemont House, Parnell Square, Dublin, every five years for 20 years. There would be no change to the pictures’ ownership.

On renewal in 1979, that agreement was altered. Thirty paintings would be placed on loan to Dublin for 14 years. Eight paintings would remain in London. Renoir’s Umbrellas would travel to Dublin for seven years, then return to London. On expiry of that agreement, a new 12-year agreement was reached in 1993 by which 27 pictures went on long-term loan to Dublin, four remained in London, and eight major works rotated between the two cities on a six-year cycle (see list below). That six-year cycle for the exchange of the eight greatest pictures, divided into Group A and Group B, remained in effect until the signing of the new partnership agreement in 2021.

In 2008, 38 of the 39 pictures were assembled in Dublin for an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Lane’s founding of the Municipal Gallery. (One picture was simply too large to fit in the Parnell Square building.) The exhibition was opened amid much goodwill by the President of the Irish Republic.

As part of the new 10-year partnership, the sharing and rotating of paintings will continue – however there will now be 10 paintings rotating in two groups of five, for five years in each location. Two works will remain in London. In the spirit of partnership, the works will now all be labelled ‘Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917, The National Gallery, London. In partnership with the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.’ There will also be a wide range of new partnership initiatives involving the care, display, preservation and promotion of the paintings.

The sharing agreement first brokered more than sixty years ago in 1959 has permitted audiences in the two cities where Lane spent most of his life to enjoy the remarkable collection of pictures that he assembled over a hundred years ago.

Current distribution of Hugh Lane Bequest pictures

The groups that rotate between London and Dublin are:

GROUP A (Currently in London)

Renoir, The Umbrellas
Manet, Eva Gonzales
Morisot, Summer’s Day
Pissarro, View from Louveciennes
Daumier, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

GROUP B (Currently in Dublin)

Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens
Degas, Beach Scene
Vuillard, The Mantelpiece
Monet, Lavacourt under Snow
Corot, Avignon from the West

Works remaining at the National Gallery

Studio of Ingres, The Duc d’Orléans
Puvis de Chavannes, Beheading of John the Baptist

Paintings on long-term loan to Dublin

Barye, The Forest of Fontainebleau
Bonvin, Still Life with Books, Papers and Inkwell
Boudin, The Beach at Tourgéville-les-Sablons
Brown, The Performing Dog
Corot, Summer Morning
Follower of Corot, A Peasant Woman
Courbet, The Diligence in the Snow
Studio of Courbet, The Pool
Courbet, In the Forest
After Courbet, Self Portrait
Daubigny, Portrait of Honoré Daumier
Diaz, Venus and Two Cupids
Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Glass Jug, Fruit and Flowers
Forain, Legal Assistance
French School, A Black Woman
Gérôme, Portrait of Armand Gérôme
Imitator of Jongkind, Skating in Holland
Madrazo, Portrait of a Lady
Mancini, The Customs (La Douane)
Mancini, On a Journey (En Voyage)
Mancini, Aurelia
Mancini, The Marquis del Grillo
Maris, A Girl feeding a Bird in a Cage
Monticelli, The Hayfield
Puvis de Chavannes, A Maid Combing a Woman’s Hair
Possibly by Théodore Rousseau, Moonlight: The Bathers
Stevens, The Present