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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.

Detail from Renoir, 'The Umbrellas', about 1881-6
Detail from Renoir, 'The Umbrellas', about 1881-6

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. That codicil was never witnessed and therefore was legally invalid throughout the UK and the British Empire (Ireland, at this point, was part of the UK). 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 Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 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, remains in effect.

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.

The sharing agreement first brokered 60 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

Group A, currently in London

NG 3259, Manet, Eva Gonzalès 
NG 3264, Morisot, Summer’s Day 
NG 3265, Pissarro, View from Louveciennes 
NG 3268, Renoir, The Umbrellas

Group B, currently in Dublin

NG 3274, Degas, Beach Scene
NG 3260, Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens 
NG 3262, Monet, Lavacourt under Snow 
NG 3271, Vuillard, The Mantelpiece (La Chiminée)

Paintings permanently at the National Gallery

NG 3237, Corot, Avignon from the West
NG 3244, Daumier, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
NG 3252, Studio of Ingres, The Duc d’Orléans
NG 3266, Puvis de Chavannes, Beheading of John the Baptist

Paintings on long-term loan to Dublin

NG 3233, Barye, The Forest of Fontainebleau
NG 3234, Bonvin, Still Life with Books, Papers and Inkwell
NG 3235, Boudin, The Beach at Tourgéville-les-Sablons
NG 3236, Brown,The Performing Dog
NG 3238, Corot,Summer Morning
NG 3239, Follower of Corot, A Peasant Woman
NG 3242, Courbet, The Diligence in the Snow
NG 3243, Studio of Courbet, The Pool
NG 3241, Courbet,In the Forest
NG 3240, After Courbet, Self Portrait
NG 3245, Daubigny,Portrait of Honoré Daumier
NG 3246, Diaz, Venus and Two Cupids 
NG 3248, Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Glass Jug, Fruit and Flowers
NG 3249, Forain, Legal Assistance
NG 3250, French School, A Black Woman
NG 3251, Gérôme, Portrait of Armand Gérôme
NG 3253, Imitator of Jongkind, Skating in Holland
NG 3254, Madrazo, Portrait of a Lady
NG 3255, Mancini, The Customs (La Douane)
NG 3256, Mancini, On a Journey (En Voyage)
NG 3257, Mancini, The Marquis del Grillo
NG 3258, Mancini, Aurelia
NG 3261, Maris, A Girl feeding a Bird in a Cage
NG 3263, Monticelli, The Hayfield
NG 3267, Puvis de Chavannes, A Maid Combing a Woman’s Hair
NG 3269, Possibly by Théodore Rousseau, Moonlight: The Bathers
NG 3270, Stevens, The Present