Memory Lane – Ray Burke on the audacious theft of Berthe Morisot’s Impressionist masterpiece and the Hugh Lane bequest

An Irishman’s Diary

Detail from Jour d’été (Summer’s Day) by Berthe Morisot (1879). National Gallery, London. An audacious theft 65 years ago this month highlighted the controversy over the Hugh Lane bequest.

Detail from Jour d’été (Summer’s Day) by Berthe Morisot (1879). National Gallery, London. An audacious theft 65 years ago this month highlighted the controversy over the Hugh Lane bequest.

 

Claims that there is no such thing as a victimless crime were undermined audaciously by a handful of Irish university students in London 65 years ago this month.

The students sheltered in a safe house for five days and nights after they had stolen a French Impressionist masterpiece oil painting from the Tate Gallery at Millbank, close to Westminster, on the morning of Thursday, April 12th, 1956.

A photograph of the masterpiece, Jour d’été (Summer’s Day) by Berthe Morisot, appeared on the top of the front page of the next day’s Irish Times and Irish Press, and the story of the theft dominated front pages for the next week. A photograph of a barefaced student descending the Tate Gallery steps with the painting was confiscated and suppressed by Scotland Yard until the following Saturday evening, giving the next morning’s Sunday Press a “picture exclusive” which it splashed on its front page.

In statements to the newspapers via the National Students’ Council, the thieves said they intended to present the painting “to its rightful owners, the Irish people”. They said that the painting was “the property of the city of Dublin” and the authority for their action was “the codicil of the will of Sir Hugh Lane, dated February 1915” in which he bequeathed 39 paintings to Dublin.

A dispute about the codicil’s legality had been unresolved between Irish and British authorities since Lane died when the transatlantic liner Lusitania was sunk off Co Cork in 1915. His aunt and biographer, Lady Augusta Gregory, had incessantly lobbied successive governments in both jurisdictions until she died in 1932. Her campaign was supported by Michael Collins, WT Cosgrave, Eamon de Valera, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and many English and international art experts.

Lane’s handwritten codicil had been discovered in a drawer on his desk in the National Gallery of Ireland after his death, but it had not been witnessed.

It reversed his bequest of the 39 paintings to the National Gallery in London in a will that he made in 1913, when he had tired of waiting for a promised municipal art gallery in Dublin. The unwitnessed codicil had no legal standing in England, although it would have been legal in Scotland or France, and the English National Gallery refused to surrender the paintings.

The Irish government condemned the Tate theft, publicly and firmly. But it said that while the “technical invalidity” of the codicil denied legal ownership to Ireland, there was an irrefutable moral claim to return all 39 paintings to Dublin, in accordance with Lane’s clearly recorded and widely supported last wishes.

The students described the government’s attitude as “supine” and said that the British claim to the paintings was “barren”.

Some art authorities and the Observer newspaper sympathised with the students’ motivation.

Five days of extensive police searches in London, and at all air and seaports, failed to recover the painting. It was returned to the Tate Gallery “in perfect condition” after it had been handed into the Irish Embassy in London by a woman who said that it had been left at her home by two men. In a statement the students said that they had stolen the painting because of the Irish government’s inaction and “for the sole purpose of focussing attention on the injustice which England continues to perpetuate on the Irish nation by retaining the Lane paintings in contravention of the last will of the late Sir Hugh”.

The most recent compromise on sharing most of the paintings between Dublin and London, agreed in February this year, would not have satisfied the students or Lady Gregory. As sole trustee of her nephew’s codicil, she believed implacably that he meant all 39 pictures to be displayed permanently in the Dublin Municipal Art Gallery, now called the Hugh Lane Gallery.

The sole witness to the 1956 daylight robbery was photographer Charlie Dawson of the London agency Planet News. He had been sent to the Tate Gallery after an anonymous tip-off that there would be a demonstration there between 10am and 11am. Finding no demonstration, he was leaning against his car with his camera in his hand when a man came up behind him and said “Take that picture”, pointing to a man walking down the gallery steps with a bundle under his arm.

He recalled that he took that picture and also one of the same man stepping into a taxi, but when he turned around to look for the man behind him “that man had disappeared”.

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