The Hugh Lane Collection: a hundred years on

Posted on: May 31, 2015 by

The disputed collection that had once belonged to the great Irish dealer and collector Sir Hugh Lane has once again made the headlines. Lane died one hundred years ago this month on the Lusitania when the ship was sunk by German U-boats on its journey from New York to Liverpool. He had put together a fantastic art collection – including now-priceless works by Manet and Renoir – the ownership of which has remained contentious since his death.

Having spent much of his life between London and Dublin, he had decided in 1913 to bequeath 39 of his most important ‘modern’ works (including the famous impressionist pieces) to the National Gallery in London. However, after a less-than-enthusiastic response from the Gallery, he changed his mind and two years later added a codicil to his will by which title to the paintings would pass upon his death to the Municipal Gallery of Dublin. The only problem was that the signed codicil was never witnessed. And shortly thereafter Lane met his end.

Renoir Umbrellas

The National Gallery hung onto the paintings and based their position on a strict reading of the law: an unwitnessed codicil was invalid. Of course at the same time, the value of the pieces, which included Renoir’s Umbrellas (pictured here) and Manet’s Eva Gonzales, escalated. After repeated requests by the Irish, the National Gallery finally relented. In 1959, a deal was struck whereby 31 of the paintings would be kept in Dublin, while the eight most precious works would be split into two lots of four and swapped back and forth between the institutions.

The compromise worked. The ‘moral right’ of the Irish to the pictures was at last acceded to and Dublin would get to display the works – even if some of them were just for set periods of time. But ownership remained with the National Gallery and this has continued to cause discomfort on the Irish side. This is especially so because the agreement between the museums is set to expire in 2019.

The continuing dispute was worthy of two recent articles in the British press. The first recounts how National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny had stated in a public speech that Dublin had ‘some moral claim to the paintings’, which it interprets as an admission that the paintings belong in Dublin. The other is a brilliant overview of the whole story by Roy Foster, Professor of Irish History at Oxford University.