Citizen Lane: Art and the creation of the Irish nation

Hugh Lane’s contribution to cultural history is the focus of Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s new film

There's a wonderful tableau in the new Irish historical film Citizen Lane depicting Hugh Lane's wildly ambitious vision for Dublin: architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens's never-realised designs for a gallery that, in common with the Vasari Corridor in Florence, would have spanned the Ha'penny Bridge (then known as the Wellington Bridge).

It’s impossible not to wonder about this alternate future of the River Liffey. Might the gallery have been blown to smithereens as the gunboat Helga attacked rebels in 1916? Might it be the biggest tourist draw this side of the homes of U2? Might Lane have gone on to be a suitably revolutionary Minister for Culture after 1923?

"Historians have to be careful with counterfactuals," cautions Prof Roy Foster. "But this is one that's worth playing with. The gunboat would probably have smashed a great hole in it. But had the gallery been established we might be dealing with a different future altogether. At the time of his death, Lane was director of the National Gallery in Ireland, which was a part-time post. Had he lived a normal lifespan, he would probably have gone on to the directorship of a larger gallery. He would also have built an extraordinary collect of old masters and impressionists and, because he was capable of developing and charging, a larger collection on into the age of Picasso and Matisse."

Hugh Lane may not be as celebrated as his aunt Lady Gregory, yet his contribution to Irish cultural history has been immeasurable

Lane the aesthete, collector, dealer and philanthropist may not be as celebrated as his aunt Lady Gregory, yet his contribution to Irish cultural history has been immeasurable and unexpectedly fractious.


Citizen Lane, an innovative new documentary-drama from director Thaddeus O'Sullivan, offers a unique opportunity to get to know the founder of Dublin's municipal gallery, and explores the controversies surrounding his 1917 Bequest.

"To be honest I knew very little about Hugh Lane before, except that he established his gallery in Dublin and that he died aboard the Lusitania," says Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (fresh from his bow as Ebony Maw in The Avengers: Infinity War), who plays Lane in the new film. "But from Mark O Halloran's beautiful script and reading about him I could see his brilliance as an artist, and he was an artist, his charisma and all of his complexities. I found his vulnerability as a private man heart-breaking."

Pre-revolution moment

O'Halloran's elegant screenplay simultaneously makes for a fascinating biopic and a lively recreation of early 20th century Dublin, at a time when, as the Irish writer George Moore observed: "The sceptre of intelligence [had] moved from London to Dublin."

It was, as Foster notes: "An extraordinary moment, that pre-revolution moment, when the nation is electrified by idea. Lane believed very profoundly – as did Yeats and Lady Gregory and Sarah Cecilia Harrison and the others involved – that bringing great contemporary art to Ireland was an essential part of cultural independence. That's what the capital city of a culturally independent nation should do. Of course, arguments were made by many Irish people that we shouldn't be spending money on fripperies like art. You still hear these kind of arguments in the Dáil today. One of the many brilliant things in Mark O'Halloran's script is his reconstruction of those arguments, vividly and movingly using the words of the people at the time, the arguments of William Martin Murphy, Lord Ardilaun, and Augusta Gregory. "

Lane founded the original Dublin City Gallery on Harcourt Street in 1908, the same year that Ireland competed in the Summer Olympics as a separate nation (winning silver medals in field hockey and polo), Padraic Pearse opened Scoil Eanna, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington formed the Irish Women's Franchise League, and James Larkin established the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union.

“Hugh Lane had winged it all his life,” says O’Halloran. “And he could see that the country – our nationalism – was winging it. Everybody was improvising. They were comparatively young people forming committees, staging patriotic tableaux, and reviving an Ireland regardless of whether it had ever existed before.”

The Harcourt Street gallery was the first known public gallery of contemporary art in the world.

“One of the fascinating things about Lane is this belief in – not just the public display of art – but in the municipal and national collection; the free and open display of art,” says art historian, Morna O’Neill.

It was, moreover, an extraordinary act of generosity, a typically grand gesture from a man who, in other respects lived frugally, dining on a bun and piece of fruit for his evening meal.

Huge generosity

Writing about a new exhibition at the National Gallery in 2001, George Moore's biographer, Adrian Frazier observed: "We can see for ourselves the scope of Lane's generosity to Ireland… A population as a whole may come into property, as Ireland has now done, without seeing its galleries or universities receive private benefactions on anything like the Hugh Lane scale. And had Lane lived a full lifespan, William Orpen guesses that he would have kept on giving to the end and died a pauper."

Lane additionally commissioned Jack B Yeats, Sarah Cecilia Harrison, and William Orpen, to create a series of portraits, reflecting his twin aspiration to help establish an Irish school of art. That idea dovetailed neatly with the cultural movements in the broader church of the Celtic Twilight. Still, the common cause didn't necessarily endear him to the Irish Literary Revival set.

WB Yeats didn't like him when he met him. But a lot of that comes down to Yeats' own snobbishness

At first, at least. In October 1913, WB Yeats privately published Poems Written in Discouragement, 1912-1913, a collection of poems inspired by the controversy surrounding the proposal by Hugh Lane to establish a modern art gallery in Dublin and the rejection of that plan by Dublin Corporation. Yeats would later fondly recall Lane as the "onlie begetter" in his 1937 poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited.

His relationship with Lane was not always so warm, however.

“I think Lane was one of those people that when you first met him you’d think: get him fucking away from me, but then you’d become a devoted follower,” says O’Halloran. “Yeats didn’t like him when he met him. But a lot of that comes down to Yeats’ own snobbishness. He thought Lane was trying to buy his way into the cultured society of the day. Being a dealer or a collector was an important distinction. And when Lane suggested that Yeats wouldn’t get very much for a painting he admired, Yeats was disgusted. Lady Gregory didn’t like Lane very much initially, either. He entered Dublin society like a whirlwind, Yeats’s father said being in his company was very difficult because you got dusted down from your head to your shoes.”

It gets gossipier. The novelist George Moore made allegations that Lane was a cross-dresser, a "psychosexual projection", by O'Halloran's reckoning, that may have been a coded way of referring to Lane's homosexuality. Fervent anti-Semite Maud Gonne suggested that "[Lane] had picked up too many of the Jewish ways".

Lane is certainly a tricky character to pin down. Born in 1875 at Ballybrack House in Douglas, Co Cork, he was the fifth child of a rector, the Rev John Lane, and his mother Adelaide, a sister of Lady Gregory.

As his biographer Robert O'Byrne has commented, it's a little ironic that Lane, a descendant of a former lord mayor of Cork city, was only in the rebel county for his birth and, approximately, for his death (aboard the Lusitania, which was struck by a German U-Boat some 18 km off the Old Head of Kinsale).

As an infant, Lane and his unhappily married parents moved to Cornwall, the first of many parishes in a perambulatory childhood. He was, according to O'Byrne's biography "courtly and smooth" when he arrived in London, aged 18, and largely uneducated. His aunt Lady Gregory had arranged for a job assisting the London art dealer Martin Henry Colnaghi, a position at which Lane excelled. By his mid-twenties, Lane returned to the country of his birth as a gifted art collector with a sizeable fortune.

‘Superb collection’

“He was very funny and eccentric,” says O’Halloran. “He could read a canvas but he couldn’t actually put what he was seeing into words. He was uneducated for the most part because he was ill as a child and the product of a broken home. But by using his instinctual understanding of art he became a millionaire when he was still in his early 20s. I was fascinated by him and was really interested in his dedication to art and in his relationship with Irish nationalism. He would say he was a nationalist, but his idea of nationalism was probably very different from the radical edge that became the centre ground during the 20th century.”

Bouncing between Dublin, London, Lady Gregory's Galway estate, Paris, Madrid and South Africa (where he established public galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg), Lane amassed a significant collection. The 39 paintings he intended to exhibit in the Luytens' building include works by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Morisot, Vuillard and Degas.

"Hugh Lane brought together a superb collection of modern art which he presented to Dublin in 1908 to create the public art gallery which is now Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane," says Dr Barbara Dawson, director of the gallery. "The Sir Hugh Lane Bequest paintings are part of this collection and this is where they belong."

It's complicated. When Luytens' plans were rejected by the Corporation, Lane offered the 39 modern paintings to the National Gallery in London. Two years later, as the director of the National Gallery in Dublin, he added a codicil to his will leaving the 39 paintings to Dublin, on condition that a suitable gallery would be built to house them. The codicil was initialled by Lane on every page of his will but it was not witnessed, so in 1915, when Lane died on board the RMS Lusitania, the London gallery refused to return Lane's Bequest.

"I became very interested in the history of the pictures and their disputed ownership when I was working on Yeats's life," says Foster, whose WB Yeats: A Life was published in two volumes in 1997 and 2003. "And I saw how much it meant to Yeats and Lady Gregory. Lady Gregory devoted all of her declining years to rectify this injustice."

It is not quite the imperialist looting that brought the Elgin Marbles to the British Museum, but it is perfidy, nonetheless, says Foster. "Hugh Lane dies on the Lusitania leaving an unwitnessed codicil. So through the years of the Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the establishment of the Free State, the British were able to say that these paintings wouldn't be safe over there. It's a case of a legal disputation where a commission of the British parliament admitted that Lane's intention was to leave the paintings to Dublin, and then said: 'hey ho, the codicil wasn't witnessed, so it's not legal, so tough luck'. But there's an interesting not dissimilar case in 1927 when Lord Iveagh wanted to leave pictures to Kenwood House, but he left them in an unwitnessed codicil. His family agreed that's what he wanted and a very fast act of parliament made that codicil legal. I don't know why Hugh Lane's wishes couldn't have been treated in a similar way."

In the years since Lane's premature death, various parties, including Lady Gregory, WT Cosgrove, Sean Lemass, and John A Costello, have approached various British prime ministers, including Ramsay MacDonald and Harold Macmillan, so that the codicil might be honoured. In 1993, an agreement was reached so that 31 of the 39 paintings would stay in Ireland. The remaining eight were divided into two groups, so that four would be lent for six years at a time to Dublin. These eight include Les Parapluies (The Umbrellas) by Auguste Renoir and Portrait of Eva Gonzales by Édouard Manet.

“The question of ownership is what needs to be resolved,” says Foster. “The sharing of paintings between the National Gallery of Great Britain is a very good idea. It’s just that when you see them hanging in London, they say property of the National Gallery, when actually they should be property of the Hugh Lane Gallery.”

  • Citizen Lane opens May 18th