Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Hugh Lane Centenary at the Municipal Gallery

It might wisely be asked: What would we do without controversy? This week the celebrations of the centenary of the Hugh Lane Gallery continue their rich pattern of excitement and wonder with the arrival in Dublin of all 29 paintings known as the Hugh Lane Bequest, intended for Dublin’s Municipal Gallery. They have been cleverly mixed with other paintings belonging to that era of related to Lane’s involvement in the founding of the gallery.

The Corporation changed the gallery’s name – against Hugh Lane’s inferred wishes – to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery. This was then shortened. Since then it has been changed again to the Dublin City Gallery, with the words, ‘The Hugh Lane’, tagged on.

There, I am getting into controversy already and have not yet come to the story. It is well known. Lane’s codicil to his own Will, but not witnessed, made the bequest to Dublin, and this was found in Hugh Lane’s desk at the National Gallery of Ireland after his tragic death which occurred when the Lusitania, on which he was returning from New York, was sunk by German U-Boats in 1915.

The supposed benefaction failed in the courts. His gift of the pictures to the National Gallery in London was upheld. This provoked a controversy lasting throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Lady Gregory campaigned to get them back. Many others did, too. The pictures were divided into two groups and were lent to Dublin by London, turn and turn about. They were never exhibited altogether before, making this week’s event rather special.

To Lane’s credit, the paintings are an outstanding cross-section of works from the second half of the nineteenth century and include many masterpieces. His judgment as a dealer is recognised on top of his immense generosity, not just to the Municipal Gallery but to other galleries as well, including the National Gallery.

But it was not so in his lifetime. In forming his early collections and in trying to make them over to Dublin as part of his attempt to persuade the City to build a proper gallery to house his and other works of art, he ran into much controversy and suffered humiliating disparagements of his choice and judgment of pictures, many of which implied dishonesty in attributions. These are the usual things that art dealers face and it makes their lives difficult. Lane survived the controversies that developed, stuck to his convictions and was proved right.

One such row centred on a painting by Jean-Baptiste Corot called Peasants by a Lake. A similar work, by a minor nineteenth century Hungarian painter, Geza Meszoly, made people doubt Lane’s judgment. Some of his friends weighed in, including George Moore – who was no help at all – and William Orpen, who perhaps unwisely stepped in with letters to the paper. This is rarely a wise course of action. Orpen, who was a friend of Lane, mentioned in one letter that it had ‘become a personal matter’ when his own intervention was clearly personal.

The hero of the hour was the handsome John Shaw-Taylor, a nephew of lady Gregory and cousin of Hugh Lane. Orpen did a splendid portrait of him. He was a southern Unionist, courageous as well as being outspoken. He is famous for a few minor achievements. Yeats, in an essay about him, tells us that Shaw-Taylor, returning from the United States and arriving in Cork in a storm, was the sole passenger to alight on the tender that came out to the liner, by leaping across the gap made as the tender backed off to return to harbour. Yeats also mentions that Shaw-Taylor solved a stale-mate in the Land Conference, where participants were ‘talking the life out of it’, and this ‘made his name historic and changed the history of Ireland’.

Even for W.B. Yeats this was bit over the top but was part of the poet’s desire to make heroes out of his friends, some of whose achievements were modest enough. Most famously of all, however, was Shaw-Taylor’s intervention in what was known as ‘The Corot Row’. Colonel Plunkett, who was director of the National Museum and had made the premises available for Lane to show his pictures – including the disputed Corot – then played a beastly trick on Lane by hanging photographs of the Corot and the Meszoly pictures side by side at the exhibition entrance.

There was uproar. The newspaper were filled with stories and pictures. One cartoon showed Hamlet in front the paintings, soliloquising: ‘To Corot or not to Corot?’ Shaw-Taylor acted with the precision and courage noted by Yeats, went to the museum and, under the eyes of a watchful member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, unscrewed the photographs and took them away. Hugh Lane, realising that his cousin might well be arrested and charged, swept him off in a barouche to Dublin Castle for lunch with the Lord Lieutenant, whom Lane knew well because he had been asking him for pictures. John Shaw-Taylor confessed and was pardoned before any complaint was made. He was assured that no action would be taken against him.

The rest of that particular story is best told in ‘The Ballad of Shaw-Taylor and Hugh Lane’, written by Susan Mitchell and published in her book, Aids to the Immortality of Certain Persons in Ireland:

And so the brave Shaw-Taylor,
That Captain wise and great,
With freedom flaming on his brows
Came forth unto the gate,
Where Dublin’s best and wittiest
Had gathered for to see
The man that braved the peeler
For Art and Liberty!

AE was there with his long hair,
And Orpen, R.H.A.,
Sir Thomas Drew was in a stew,
And looked the other way,
But Martyn, who had left the stage
To play the patriot’s part
Called for Hungarian policy
In everything but art!

And John B. Yeats stood near the gates
With mischief in his gaze,
While W.B. the poet, he
Pondered a telling phrase,
You’ll find it in the Freeman
After a day or so
And Moore was there – the same who is
High Sheriff for Mayo.

The dust died down, controversy faded, Ireland got on with politics instead. The compromise over the paintings – half in London, half in Dublin – was brought about with Lord Moyne’s help and there was a settlement of sorts. Dublin Corporation did as little as possible. The gallery was the least of its interests and for years was a neglected place. This meant that those who loved painting could just go there and look at what they loved without many others being around, always a fine thing for lovers of art. So when you go to look at the 29 paintings, pick your time carefully.