What Was the Hugh Lane Bequest?

Sarah Roller

Twentieth Century
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The Hugh Lane Gallery is one of Dublin’s top tourist attractions – but the man behind it remains little known. Hugh Lane was a notable art dealer and collector in the early 20th century, and the story of his art is far from over.

Who was Hugh Lane?

Hugh Lane was born in Cork in 1875, but was brought up in Cornwall. He originally began his career as an apprentice art restorer, eventually becoming a prominent art dealer, with a particular interest in collecting and dealing French Impressionist art. 

Whilst Lane was English in the most meaningful senses of the word, he retained his Irish connections, visiting his aunt Lady Gregory, in County Galway and becoming a key figure in the Irish cultural renaissance movement in the early 20th century. He curated his first exhibition of Irish Art in London in 1904, before turning his sights back to Dublin.  

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Dealer and philanthropist

Lane donated most of his own extensive collection to the newly formed Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, which opened in Dublin in 1908. However, many saw the creation of a new modern art gallery as a luxury the city could ill afford, given the numbers still living in slums and tenements.

In 1913, after several years of tense debates about the site of a proposed new gallery which did not go Lane’s way, he decided to donate 39 of his best paintings to the National Gallery in London, as an act of petty revenge.

The Umbrellas (1881-86), Pierre Auguste Renoir.

The National Gallery were somewhat snobbish about Lane’s collection: the board wrote to Lane saying ‘while some of these pictures are well worthy of temporary exhibition in the National Collection, there are others which hardly attain to the standard which would justify their inclusion.’  

Untimely demise

In 1915, Lane became the director of the National Gallery in Dublin – shortly after this, he executed some major sales, including Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell and Titian’s Man in a Red Cap, which entailed going to New York. Lane boarded the ill-fated RMS Lusitania on his return journey, and died in the ship’s torpedoing.  

The RMS Lusitania coming into port, pre-1913. Image credit: CC

A contested will

Lane added an unwitnessed codicil to his will shortly before his death, bequeathing his 39 paintings to the National Gallery in Dublin instead of London. Even in a few short years, the paintings’ value had skyrocketed up to c. £60,000. Impressionist paintings had become more desirable than ever, and Lane’s collection was now viewed as noteable and worthwhile.

London was understandably unhappy about this last minute change and contested the will heavily. Whilst in certain situations, such as a soldier’s death, an unwitnessed will was deemed legal, London claimed that this was not an exceptional enough circumstance to change the codicil’s legality. 

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Anglo-Irish Battle

Dublin fought fiercely to keep the paintings. Whilst the art was important, so too was the context in which this war was being waged. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent War of Irish Independence had pitted England and Ireland firmly against each other. 

London’s insistence on keeping the paintings only served to reinforce English intransigence and lack of morality in the Irish press. What Hugh Lane would have made of the dramatic change in politics remains unknown: it is unclear what he would have made of an independent Irish state, but he loved the National Gallery of Ireland, and worked hard in his short tenure as director.  

Sir Hugh Percy Lane

An ongoing dispute

The issue still remains technically unsolved. The National Gallery continue to argue, to this day, that the Lane Bequest is legally part of their collection, and that they are not permitted to de-accession any paintings. Over the past century, attempts have been made to ‘share’ the paintings, ensuring some are hung in Dublin and some in London at all times.

Lane’s desire to see them all in Dublin has not yet been fulfilled, and whilst there may be a functioning sharing relationship, the point remains that the division of the Hugh Lane bequest is just one of the injustices that continues to haunt Anglo-Irish relations.  

Sarah Roller