The Tortured Tale of the Hugh Lane Gallery

Millionaire art dealer and collector Sir Hugh Percy Lane made quite a splash when he opened his own public art gallery in Dublin on Harcourt Street in 1907. He soon tired of running it, however, and in 1912 he offered to donate the whole thing—millions of pounds worth of Impressionist paintings—to the city. His only condition was that the city should build an appropriate structure to hold it all.

Dublin agreed, and all seemed well. However, months later, the city had failed to find a suitable structure and was caught up in haggling over the cost. When the city withdrew from the deal, Lane was (understandably) furious. In a temper, he made an agreement with the National Gallery in London to give that vast art museum his collection instead.

To the rescue came the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats. (Lane also happened to be the nephew of Yeats’ friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory). Infuriated by the government’s ineptitude, Yeats wrote a series of angry poems lambasting the government for its failure to find a place to house such magnificent works. Inspired in part by Yeats’s fervor, Lane changed his mind and decided to leave his collection to Dublin after all. He ordered his will changed—but he hadn’t yet had it signed and witnessed when he was killed in 1915 aboard the ocean liner Lusitania, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

So began a legal stalemate in which the National Gallery and the city of Dublin wrangled over the very same Monets, Courbets, and Manets that Dublin hadn’t even been sure it wanted a few months earlier.

To an extent, the issue is still unresolved 90 years later. Luckily, an agreement is in place by which the main works in the collection are displayed at different times by both galleries.

And the Hugh Lane Gallery now has a gorgeous home in the classical Charlemont House on Parnell Square. Sir Hugh would surely approve.

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