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Distinctively Irish, creatively modern: Roy Foster on Sarah Purser, the most successful portrait painter of her day

The artist is the subject of a new exhibition at the Hugh Lane, the Dublin gallery that she helped to inspire

Dublin salon: Sarah Purser on the Steps of Mespil House, painted by Mary Swanzy in 1932. Photograph © Hugh Lane Gallery/Estate of Mary Swanzy

William Orpen’s rambling and elegiac 1924 memoir of his Dublin youth, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself, pays tribute to Sarah Purser, “a wonderful lady who used to look after all us ‘would-be’ painters, sculptors, writers and so on”. Orpen praises her skills as a portrait painter, the achievement of An Túr Gloine, her stained-glass studio, and the wonders of her salon at Mespil House, the Georgian mansion next to the Grand Canal where she lived for many years, but more ambiguously characterises Purser as “one time a Cosmopolitan but now Irish to the core”. If he intended to hint at a narrowing of focus after the Irish Revolution (about which Orpen felt ambivalent), this misses the point. The world in which Purser, who is the subject of a new exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery, made her remarkable career was certainly cosmopolitan, but it was also distinctively Irish and creatively modern.

When she returned from her Parisian studies at the Académie Julian in 1879 to make her way in Ireland, the country stood at the edge of a period of remarkable change. In the countryside the agricultural crisis brought about by cheap American imports and a series of bad harvests had ushered in the convulsions of the Land War, which would precipitate legislation transferring ownership from landlords to tenants in a quiet revolution; Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell knew what she was talking about when she remarked in 1895 that nowadays land “gives one a position and prevents one from keeping it up”. The mounting social and political crisis was adroitly commandeered by Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Party at Westminster, bringing Home Rule to the forefront of the political agenda by 1886. The old ascendancy of Protestant power was challenged, and already there were rumblings of resistance in the northeast to the Home Rule project.

Purser’s primary world was centred on Dublin, but this wider context should be kept in mind. Like her close friends the Yeatses, she came from a Protestant family who had possessed money and status in previous generations (in her case, from brewing and engineering businesses); in both families the money had declined, but a sense of social authority lingered on. There were connections to the haut-bourgeois worlds of Trinity College Dublin (where members of the Purser family were still prominent, and many of whose dignitaries she painted), Dublin Castle and the Royal Dublin Society. The social and economic influence of the Protestant community was still disproportionate to their numbers, and the unionist establishment was still supported by noisy demotic organisations such as the Protestant Working Men’s Club on York Street, close to John Butler Yeats’s studio, as well as enjoying over-representation in the professions and upper echelons of commerce.

Sarah Purser sketched by John Butler Yeats, 1896-1898. Photograph: Limerick City Gallery of Art

Nonetheless Purser, like John Butler Yeats and his children, was conscious that there were different worlds to be plumbed, such as the Contemporary Club founded by their mutual friend Charles Oldham, which featured literary and political discussion in an adventurous spirit. In its upstairs room on Grafton Street they encountered representatives of a different tradition, such as the old Fenian John O’Leary, whom John Butler Yeats would later thank for opening their eyes to a new way of thinking. “When I met you & your friends I for the first time met people in Dublin who were not entirely absorbed in the temporal & eternal welfare of themselves … It was meeting you all that has left an impression on my young people that will never be quite lost.”

Portrait of Maud Gonne by Sarah Purser, 1898. Photograph © Hugh Lane Gallery

Purser was a regular guest at the club, as was the radical nationalist Maud Gonne, who became her close friend as well as a subject for a number of paintings. Purser was one of the few people who could put Gonne in her place, as WB Yeats observed when Gonne entertained him and Purser in Paris. “She was as characteristic as ever, as like herself as a John drawing. Maud Gonne had a cage full of canaries and the birds were all singing. Sarah Purser began lunch by saying ‘What a noise! I’d like to have my lunch in the kitchen.’” But their friendship also brought connections to the Irish suffrage movement and to the feminist impulse decisively affecting many women of Purser’s generation.

Notably strong-minded, intelligent and imaginative, with a talent for friendship and bringing people together, Purser forged her own path to become the most successful Irish portrait-painter of the day. Through friends like Oldham, Gonne and the Yeatses, she made connections to the world outside the Dublin establishment and its rigid codes and exclusions. Orpen’s memoir ruefully remembers the strict social division between Protestants and Catholics, whom he parodied as “Dogs” and “Cats”; Elizabeth Bowen, remembering her Dublin childhood in the first years of the 20th century, saw Catholics as inhabiting a different, parallel world. Though treated with “courteous detachment”, “they were simply ‘the others’, whose world lay alongside ours but never touched.”

Irish culture’s remarkable response to the political turmoil from 1891 to 1922Opens in new window ]

Bowen lived on Herbert Place, at the heart of the Pembroke Estate, which like Rathmines preserved its own caste identity. Rathmines was superbly mocked by the radical Sidney Gifford, one of a formidable band of sisters determined to kick over the traces of their conservative background. “More than anything else it resembled a waxworks museum. The people who surrounded us were lifelike but inanimate models of distinguished English people … Rathmines was a phenomenon. It was not a racial group, not a political stronghold, but a spiritual condition. Its people were castaways, wrecked by mischance on this island called Ireland.” Bowen recalled that as a child she had no notion of what happened beyond the north end of Sackville – now O’Connell – Street, except for the strong impression that it was somehow sinister.

But to see Dublin in the fin de siècle and early 20th century purely in these terms, or as James Joyce’s “centre of paralysis”, ignores the variety of a city on the cusp of change. There were other Dublins to be explored. The network of streets around Sackville Street contained shops where revolutionary literature could be bought (famously, Tom Clarke’s newsagent’s on Great Britain – now Parnell – Street). Radical organisations had their headquarters in the same area, including Gonne’s Inghínídhe na hÉireann on North Great George’s Street. The small scale of the city centre made for propinquity; the short span of Harcourt Terrace near the canal, where Purser had her home and studio before moving to Mespil House, also housed the nationalist intellectual Diarmuid Coffey and his family, the legendary librarian Thomas Lister, the Gaelic Leaguer Douglas Hyde and the republican solicitor (and nephew of JM Synge) Ned Stephens. (Purser painted striking portraits of both Hyde and Coffey.) Even Rathmines’ Belgrave Road, for all Gifford’s satire, was home to the influential suffrage campaigners Francis and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the nationalist doctor and campaigner Kathleen Lynn and her partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, and later Clarke’s widow, Kathleen; their street came to be colloquially known as Rebel Road.

Moreover Dublin, the “second city of empire”, was in many ways modernising, radicalising and reshaping itself. Though still principally a service economy, there were industrial powerhouses such as the vast Guinness brewery (in whose shares Purser cannily invested whenever she had the money), Jacob’s biscuit factory, Cantrell & Cochrane’s mineral waters, and large building firms. Communications were notably up to date, with an efficient telegraph service and an advanced telephone network by 1900. Motorcars rapidly became commonplace in the city. (Purser bought one in 1913.) Urban transport had been revolutionised by the electrified tram network, a central part of the burgeoning empire of the city’s premier capitalist, William Martin Murphy, which also encompassed the punchy daily Irish Independent newspaper and several hotels.

Above all Dublin was a cultural capital. The city sustained a lively musical scene, with regular visits from international opera companies, and innovative chamber concerts at the RDS featuring the work of modern European composers. Dubliners also took to the new entertainment medium of cinema (which particularly interested Joyce), and they were ostentatiously well served by a wide and lively range of newspapers. And there was an overarching and heady sense of cultural revival, pinpointed by George Moore as the moment when the “sceptre of intelligence” moved from London to Dublin. This was expressed in the rise of the Gaelic League, the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, and the arts and crafts enterprises of Dun Emer and Cuala, founded by the Yeats sisters, Elizabeth and Susan.

Portrait of WB Yeats by Sarah Purser, c 1904. Photograph © Hugh Lane Gallery

And there was the swift rise to celebrity of Purser’s old friend WB Yeats, their brother. Purser’s art captured his image, like Gonne’s, for posterity – though her feelings about their fabled relationship can be inferred from her remark to Iseult Gonne after her elopement with Francis Stuart. “So you have married your poet. Your mother had more sense.”

Purser was prominent in the audience when Hyde gave his landmark lecture “On the Necessity for de-Anglicising the Irish People” to the National Literary Society on November 25th, 1892. The rediscovery and re-evaluation of Gaelic traditions celebrated the prelapsarian beauties of the west of Ireland – inspiring painters at the very time when rural social and economic problems galvanised the co-operative movement, involving several of Purser’s friends, and government organisations such as the congested-districts board and the department of agriculture and technical instruction. But the organisational drive and inspiration for cultural revival, and the political radicalisation that followed it, were based in Dublin.

Closely connected with the sense of national revival was the determined effort of Purser’s friend Hugh Lane to found a gallery that would house modern art, particularly the French impressionist painters whose work he had bought with remarkable insight. Purser was a passionate supporter of the cause, which echoed the strong connections to France and the French art scene that she sustained all her life. But Lane’s project ran into opposition from several quarters, including Dublin Corporation (whose powers stretched into nearly every sector of the city’s existence) and William Martin Murphy.

Mother and Child by Sarah Purser, c 1894. Photograph © Hugh Lane Gallery

One of the arguments against spending money on endowing art was the state of the city far from the prosperous environs of the Pembroke Estate and Rathmines. The housing conditions of Dublin’s working class were frequently appalling, highlighted by scandals over tenement collapses in 1902, 1909 and 1911. Purser’s painting of a charity “penny dinner” at Kevin Street (where the philanthropic Guinness Trust built pioneering apartment blocks in the 1890s), and her appealing portrait A Dublin Urchin, suggest some aspects of this other world.

There were reverberations in labour politics too. The unionisation of labour under the leadership of James Larkin and James Connolly, and Larkin’s organisation of the syndicalist Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, was the prelude to the great Dublin lockout of 1913, precipitated by Larkin’s attempt to unionise the workforce manning Murphy’s transport empire. This was the flashpoint that drew in intellectuals and middle-class radicals, such as Purser’s friend (and subject of one of her best portraits) the visionary writer AE, or George Russell; even Orpen took a hand in the soup kitchen at Liberty Hall. Though the workers failed to carry the day, several of Dublin’s many worlds had been exposed to each other. It was the beginning of a decade of crisis, culminating in the 1916 Rising, the ensuing guerrilla war against British rule, and the 1921 Treaty that founded the Irish Free State.

Sarah Purser lived through it all, and more, dying in 1943. During Dublin’s Edwardian heyday her expected future – like that of so many – had probably been that Ireland would graduate to Home Rule, especially after the return of the Liberals to government in the UK general election of 1906. But her friendships with people like Gonne and Yeats, her support of the suffrage movement and her more surprising association with Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin and eventual president of Dáil Éireann, suggest links to the new, hardening world that was forming beneath the “douceur de vivre” of pre-war Dublin life, so sentimentally recalled by memoirists such as Daisy Fingall, George Moore, Oliver St John Gogarty and Orpen.

And she continued to exercise influence in the new state, cultivating members of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, and inviting them to her celebrated Tuesday gatherings at Mespil House – a re-established part of the Dublin social round, along with AE’s gatherings on Sundays, Yeats’s on Mondays, Gogarty’s on Fridays and Jack Yeats’s open studio on Saturday afternoons. Something of the old prerevolutionary dispensation remained. And it was Purser who suggested in 1928 that Charlemont House should become the long-awaited home for the modern paintings that her friend Lane wanted to give to Dublin, still held by the National Gallery in London. It opened in 1933. The fact that the Hugh Lane Gallery is situated at the north end of O’Connell Street, which the young Bowen thought of as an alarming terra incognita, is somehow appropriate. Here as elsewhere, Sarah Purser managed to bridge many worlds.

More Power to You – Sarah Purser: A Force for Irish Art, curated by Logan Sisley, opens at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, on Wednesday, July 10th, and runs until January 5th, 2025. Roy Foster wrote this piece for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition