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Lane, Sir Hugh Percylocked

  • L. Perry Curtis jun.

Sir Hugh Percy Lane (1875–1915)

by Antonio Mancini, exh. Royal Society of Painters 1907

courtesy the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin

Lane, Sir Hugh Percy (1875–1915), art dealer and collector, was born on 9 November 1875 in Ballybrack House, Douglas, a suburb of Cork. His father, the Revd James William Lane (1847–1910), came from a middle-class family of lawyers and businessmen and, after ordination into the Church of England, later held parishes in Yorkshire, in Bath, and in Redruth, Cornwall. His mother, Frances Adelaide (1840–1909), was the daughter of Dudley Persse of Roxborough House, near Loughrea, one of the leading gentry of south Galway. Hugh was one of eight children born between 1870 and 1884, two of whom died young. Money worries and personality clashes drove his parents apart in the mid-1880s and this marital rupture affected Hugh, the only child born in Ireland, who shuttled back and forth between his father in Cornwall and his mother as she moved from Cork to Paris, Plymouth, and Dublin. Lack of stable parenting and money as well as poor health ruled out any formal schooling and private tutors at home brought him no closer to a university education. However, he did meet some of the luminaries of the Irish literary revival during a summer holiday at the home of his aunt, (Isabella) Augusta Gregory, Lady Gregory, Coole Park, near Gort, co. Galway.

Move to London

In 1893, at the age of seventeen, Lane found a job in London through his aunt, working for the art dealer Martin Henry Colnaghi (1821–1908), who owned the Marlborough Gallery. There the lowly apprentice cleaned paintings and ran errands for £1 a week while learning the rules of the art dealer's game. Albeit ignorant of European history, he had a flair for discerning value in old masters. If his charm impressed many customers, it grated on Colnaghi, who considered him a social climber and sacked him in May 1894. Undaunted by this rebuff, Lane went to work for Morley Turner, who ran the Carlton Gallery in Pall Mall. However, Lane soon fell out with Turner over money matters and their quarrel ended up in the courts, where Lane argued his case without benefit of a lawyer and won.

In February 1898 Lane opened his own gallery at 2 Pall Mall Place, where he sold modest paintings for immodest prices. Bereft of capital and living a spartan life, he gradually increased his inventory and profits, while earning a reputation as a shrewd gentleman-dealer. Although some rivals wrote him off as 'a damned amateur' (Lady Gregory, Sir Hugh Lane, 31), they had to concede his ability to spot a bargain and then sell it for four or five times what he had paid. Once he recognized a Franz Hals underneath layers of 'foreign matter'. Later he discovered a George Romney portrait beneath a Victorian one. At a Christies sale he bought Titian's Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (now in the Frick Collection) for £2000 and then sold it to Arthur Grenfell for £25,000. Growing prosperity enabled him to move from Duke Street to Jermyn Street, where he lived above the ground-floor showroom. In the summer of 1900 he spent several weeks at Coole consorting with the writers and visionaries of Lady Gregory's circle, who in Yeats's fine trope 'came like swallows and like swallows went' (W. B. Yeats, Coole Park, 1929).

Having outgrown the Jermyn Street premises, Lane decided in 1907 to share a rented house in South Bolton Gardens with William Orpen, the gifted Irish artist and a distant cousin. Despite their marked differences in temperament and taste, they remained lifelong friends. Orpen enjoyed a boisterous bohemian night-life, whereas Lane relished small and elegant dinner parties with élite guests. Orpen bestowed on him the nickname Petticoat—an allusion to Petticoat Lane, the famous East End street where secondhand goods were bought and sold. Generous to a fault with his friends, Lane preferred to buy objets d'art or jewellery for good friends rather than waste money on a decent lunch or a taxi for himself. In 1909 the need for more privacy and space induced him to buy the west wing of Lindsey House, an imposing town house overlooking the Thames Embankment at 100 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. He commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to redesign the garden and Augustus John agreed to paint some 'decorative pictures' in the hall, but the two men quarrelled and 'the brilliant … designs' were never finished (Bodkin, 25). Serving as a private art gallery, museum, and residence as well as a saleroom, Lindsey House became a centre of cultural and social activity where the rich and famous could dine in lavish surroundings and admire the paintings and sculptures. If they took a fancy to one, they might tender a price and close the deal with a glass of good wine or champagne. In 1911 Lane proposed marriage to the daughter of an Irish aristocrat, Lady Clare Annesley of Castlewellan, who was only eighteen at the time. But the age gap proved too much and she broke off the engagement. By then a talented Irish artist, Sarah Cecilia Harrison, had fallen in love with Lane and dreamed of marrying him even though she was thirteen years older. But Lane's early death dashed all her chances, if not her dreams.

The Dublin gallery project

Lane's chief claim to fame arose out of his ambition to educate the Irish people about modern continental and British art. No matter how cosmopolitan London made him, he could not forget his native country and like W. B. Yeats he wanted to enrich the aesthetic life of his countrymen. He also aspired to stir 'sleepy Irish artists … to do great things' (Lady Gregory, Hugh Lane's Life and Achievement, 44). In short, he set his sights on endowing Dublin with a gallery and a collection of modern and contemporary art worthy of the city. An exhibition of paintings by Nathaniel Hone and John Butler Yeats in Dublin in October 1901 opened his eyes to the talent of some living Irish artists and he commissioned Yeats to paint some of Ireland's leading citizens—a task completed by his young rival William Orpen. Had Lane continued to sell pictures to the new rich, he could easily have become another Agnew, Colnaghi, or Duveen. But his need for a greater challenge than making money spurred him to invest ever more energy, time, and wealth in the Dublin gallery project.

In the winter of 1902–3 Lane mounted an exhibition of old masters in the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, after promising to underwrite all the expenses not covered by the admission fee. Backed by aristocratic patrons, this exhibition attracted many visitors. In 1904 he assembled some recent Irish paintings for display at the St Louis World Fair. But when the cost of insurance proved prohibitive, he exhibited them in London's Guildhall during May and June. The success of this show reinforced his desire to create a gallery of modern art in Dublin that would include the work of prominent Irish artists on the grounds that 'if we are to have a distinct school of painting in Ireland … it is one's contemporaries that teach one the most' (Arnold, 137). Lane learned that the superb collection of modern French and Dutch art owned by the late railway magnate James Staats Forbes was to be sold to a museum of art. Much impressed by the works of the Barbizon school in this collection—especially the Corots, Courbets, and Millets—he went to Paris with Orpen in September 1904 to study and buy some pictures from the notable art dealer and patron of the impressionists Paul Durand-Ruel. There he acquired Manet's Portrait d'Eva Gonzalès and Renoir's Les parapluies (National Gallery, London). On his return to London he arranged with the executors of the Staats Forbes estate to borrow 164 pictures for his exhibition of modern art that opened in November 1904 at the Royal Hibernian Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. Emboldened by this success, he formed a committee of art patrons who selected eighty-five paintings and drawings for display at the National Museum in Kildare Street in May 1905. Seventy-nine of these came from the Staats Forbes collection. To achieve his mission of endowing Dublin with a gallery of modern art, Lane urged his wealthy friends to buy these works for the permanent collection and encouraged Irish artists to contribute a few of their own works. He also promised to give his own modern paintings to the proposed gallery so long as the corporation paid for at least half the project and found a suitable site. At his prompting the prince of Wales, afterwards George V, commemorated his recent visit to Dublin by subscribing £1000 for the purchase of two Constables and two Corots from the Staats Forbes collection. Later the princess of Wales donated a third Constable to the cause. Lane told the corporation that he would find buyers for as many of the Staats Forbes pictures as possible, which would form the core of the gallery's holdings.

Following on the heels of this triumph, Lane exhibited some 143 modern pictures at the Free Library in Belfast during the spring of 1906. He had already organized a committee of art patrons in Dublin to raise funds for the new gallery. Besides his conversion to French modernism, he also wanted to promote what he called 'the common race instinct' in Irish art (Arnold, 139).

Despite these achievements Lane was passed over for the directorship of the National Museum of Science and Art in Kildare Street in favour of 'a safe man' (George Noble, Count Plunkett). Notwithstanding this setback, he continued to lobby for a municipal gallery of modern and contemporary art near St Stephen's Green. In 1907 the Dublin corporation finally obliged by offering him the former town house of the earls of Clonmell at 17 Harcourt Street, along with an annual grant of £500 for operating costs. Despite the poor lighting and leaky roof, Lane made the best of this compromise while insisting on free admission and evening hours for working people. Of the 280 works of art on display, some seventy of the British and French paintings belonged to the sponsor, as did John Singer Sargent's masterly portrait of Lane (1906; Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin) for which his friends and admirers had paid in recognition of all that he had done for Irish art. As Orpen put it, Lane was not just a genius but a '“freak”, a wonder person … a force one could not withstand. He used us all like little puppets, and we loved him and worked for him gladly' (Orpen, 49).

After receiving the freedom of the city of Dublin in 1908, Lane was honoured with a knighthood in the king's birthday honours in 1909 for his services to Irish art. And yet Lane had many detractors. Besides the Irish Ireland disciples of D. P. Moran, who resented his patrician bearing, Anglo-Irish origins, and aesthetic taste, there was Maud Gonne, who told her friend John Quinn, the New York lawyer and art collector, that Lane was a mercenary 'cur' or a swindler who preyed on poor artists and rich collectors and who had gained his knighthood by pretending to donate his French pictures to Ireland while looking for a better deal in London (Too Long a Sacrifice, 109). Quite apart from his Irish mission, Lane aided and abetted the cause of fine art in South Africa by procuring a number of modern pictures for the new art museum in Johannesburg. While delivering this consignment in person in 1910, he met General Jan Smuts, who convinced him that the National Gallery in Cape Town deserved a collection of Dutch and Flemish old masters. Lane promptly went to work and by 1913 he had bought and shipped out some sixty-eight paintings that were paid for by the South African millionaire Max Michaelis.

The inadequacies of the Harcourt Street location forced Lane to redouble his efforts on behalf of a new gallery. On 5 November 1912 he informed the lord mayor that he would withdraw his French pictures at the end of January 1913 unless the corporation found a suitable site. In response, a Dublin citizens' committee held several packed meetings at the Mansion House, where prominent supporters appealed for funds to match the £22,000 pledged by the corporation. A vigorous letter-writing campaign and a fund-raising trip to America by Lady Gregory brought in only about £11,000 of the estimated £45,000 needed for the building.

After Lord Ardilaun vetoed Lane's plan to place the gallery in the middle of St Stephen's Green, several other locations were considered before Lane embraced the bold idea of an Uffizi-like museum that would span the Liffey in place of the metal bridge. Lutyens agreed to design an imposing structure with a pillared portico arching over the river. While Lane expected this building to revitalize central Dublin, his critics dismissed the scheme as much too daring and costly. They also worried about the moisture and the noxious fumes rising from the river that would permeate the gallery. The rich and ruthless businessman William Martin Murphy announced in the papers that he 'would rather see in the City of Dublin one block of sanitary houses at low rents replacing a reeking slum than all the pictures Corot and Degas ever painted' (O'Brien, 54). At last, in September 1913 the corporation vetoed the LaneLutyens project to the great dismay and anger of Lady Gregory's circle. When this news reached a distraught Lane in London he ordered all his French paintings to be packed up and sent to the National Gallery in London.

On 11 October 1913 Lane drew up a will bequeathing his Sargent portrait and the paintings then on exhibition in Belfast to the Dublin Municipal Gallery and leaving his thirty-nine French pictures to the National Gallery in London. Four months later he was appointed director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Generous to the end, he donated his salary of £500 to a fund for purchasing new pictures and presented half a dozen old masters to the museum. Then on 3 February 1915 he amended his will in what Lady Gregory called 'his codicil of forgiveness' (Lady Gregory, Case for the Return of Sir Hugh Lane's Pictures to Dublin, 7), wherein he gave his French pictures to the city of Dublin 'providing that a suitable building is provided for them within 5 years of my death'. If no gallery had been built by that date, then the pictures were to be sold and the proceeds used to 'fulfil the purpose of my will'. He also appointed Lady Gregory his sole trustee. Unfortunately the lack of a witness deprived this document of any legal authority.

Death and reputation

The rest is history, or tragedy—or both. In mid-April 1915 Lane boarded the Lusitania at Liverpool bound for New York where he was scheduled to testify in a court case involving paintings damaged in a shipboard fire. On the eve of sailing he told his closest friend Alexander (Alec) Martin (later managing director of Christies) that he wished to leave his French pictures to the country he loved so fervently. On the return voyage a German submarine sank the Lusitania on 7 May off the Old Head of Kinsale not far from Lane's birthplace. Lane was among the 1200 people who drowned. He was last seen helping women and children into a lifeboat. Although a kinsman circulated a flyer with a photograph and description of his features, clothing, and jewellery, his body was never found. Many of his close friends and clients attended his memorial service at Chelsea Old Church on 20 May. He left an estate valued at £50,000 excluding his pictures in Lindsey House (worth at least £100,000). Besides modest legacies to his two brothers and sister, he bequeathed his personal effects to family and friends.

Because the British courts refused to recognize the codicil to his will, Lane's French pictures remained in storage in the National Gallery, London, before they were transferred to the Tate. A grief-stricken Lady Gregory devoted the rest of her life to lobbying for the return of these works to Dublin. But neither her entreaties nor those of prominent writers and artists in Dublin and London moved the British government to surrender the collection. In 1933 the Municipal Gallery found a new home in Charlemont House in Rutland Square, Dublin, which the taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, opened on 19 June. Not until November 1959 did the British and Irish governments agree to divide the collection into two groups that would alternate between London and Dublin for five-year periods. After a new round of negotiations in 1979 some thirty pictures remained in Dublin for the next fourteen years. Then in 1993 the Hugh Lane Gallery (so named in 1977) won possession of thirty-one pictures, while the other eight (including two by Manet, a Monet, a Degas, and a Renoir) alternated between the two cities at intervals.

Slight of build, dapper in dress, sharp of tongue, and always on the lookout for good deals, Lane made his share of enemies. His obsession with beautiful paintings, along with an inborn self-confidence, struck many as arrogance. Loving a good fight over issues that mattered, he paid a high price at times in terms of severe emotional distress. His warmth and the presents lavished on close friends inspired lasting devotion. At times he echoed Oscar Wilde by exclaiming: 'I have nothing but my taste' (Lady Gregory, Sir Hugh Lane, 8). But of course he also had an abundance of ambition, energy, money, connection, and courage. Frugal to the point of walking around London to save a cab fare, he drained his fortune on behalf of the municipal gallery. Afflicted with insomnia, he relaxed only when riding in Hyde Park or the countryside, playing the piano, adorning the hair of his lady friends with jewels, or stroking his beloved Pekinese dog Tinko. Owners of country houses sought him out to appraise their works of art. As Daisy, countess of Fingall observed, 'he loved beautiful things—old things especially—and would fall down and worship a picture or a piece of china' (Elizabeth, countess of Fingall, 264).

Despite his passion for French impressionism, there were strict limits to Lane's modernism. He had no time for fauvism or cubism, and dismissed Picasso's paintings as so much 'rubbish'. In his eyes the post-Monet generation lacked 'sanity, normality and health' as well as 'honesty' (Reid, 223–4). Years later W. B. Yeats celebrated Lane as an 'impetuous' man, who 'found pride established in humility' (W. B. Yeats, Coole Park, 1929). But Augustus John delivered the ultimate tribute by hailing him as 'one of those rare ones who, single-handed, are able to enrich and dignify an entire nation' (Lady Gregory's Journals, 47).


  • Lady Gregory, Sir Hugh Lane: his life and legacy, Coole Edition (1973)
  • Lady Gregory, Hugh Lane's life and achievement, with some account of the Dublin galleries (1921)
  • Lady Gregory, Case for the return of Sir Hugh Lane's pictures to Dublin (Dublin, 1926)
  • T. Bodkin, Hugh Lane and his pictures, 1st edn (Dublin, 1932); 2nd edn (Dublin, 1956)
  • R. O'Byrne, Hugh Lane, 1875–1915 (Dublin, 2000)
  • B. Dawson, ‘Hugh Lane and the origins of the collection’, Images and insights, ed. E. Mayes and P. Murphy (Dublin, 1993), 12–32
  • B. Arnold, Orpen: mirror to an age (1981)
  • S. B. Kennedy, Irish art and modernism, 1880–1950 (1991) [exhibition catalogue, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, 20 Sept – 10 Nov 1991 and Ulster Museum, Belfast, 22 Nov 1991 – 26 Jan 1992]
  • Tribute to Sir Hugh Lane (Cork, 1961)
  • R. F. Foster, The apprentice mage, 1865–1914 (1997), vol. 1 of W. B. Yeats: a life
  • D. T. Torchiana, W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland (Evanston, 1966)
  • A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: a new biography (1989)
  • B. L. Reid, The man from New York: John Quinn and his friends (New York, 1968)
  • J. Brown, Lutyens and the Edwardians: an English architect and his clients (1996)
  • W. Orpen, Stories of old Ireland and myself (1925)
  • M. Holroyd, Augustus John: the new biography (1996)
  • J. V. O'Brien, ‘Dear, dirty Dublin’: a city in distress, 1899–1916 (1982)
  • M. L. Kohfeldt, Lady Gregory: the woman behind the Irish renaissance (New York, 1985)
  • J. Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery (1958)
  • Elizabeth, countess of Fingall, Seventy years young (1937)
  • Too long a sacrifice: the letters of Maud Gonne and John Quinn, ed. J. Londraville and R. Londraville (1999)
  • The Gonne–Yeats letters, 1893–1938, ed. A. MacBride White and A. N. Jeffares (1992)
  • Lady Gregory's journals, 1916–1930, ed. L. Robinson (1946), 5, pp. 283–317
  • The collected poems of W. B. Yeats [new edn] (1965)
  • The collected letters of W. B. Yeats, 3, ed. J. Kelly and R. Schuchard (1994)
  • D. R. Pearce, ed., The senate speeches of W. B. Yeats (Bloomington, 1960)
  • I. J. Rice (law agent for the Dublin corporation), ‘Statement of the Rt. Hon. lord mayor, aldermen, and burgesses of Dublin … to the committee appointed to consider the disposition of the late Sir Hugh Lane's French pictures’, 25 Aug 1924, NL Ire., MS 10908
  • The Times (8 May 1915)
  • The Times (10 May 1915)


  • NL Ire., Hugh Lane Gallery archive, corresp.
  • NL Ire., papers, MS 10929; 13071–13072
  • NL Ire., papers, MS 15, 750; MS 5073
  • NYPL, Berg collection, Lady Gregory papers
  • TCD, corresp. with Thomas Bodkin
  • U. Glas. L., letters to D. S. MacColl


  • J. B. Yeats, pencil drawing, 1905, NL Ire.; repro. in Bodkin, Hugh Lane, pl. 2
  • S. Harrison, oils, 1906, NG Ire.
  • J. Sargent, oils, 1906, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • A. Mancini, oils, exh. Royal Society of Painters 1907, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin [see illus.]
  • W. Orpen, pen-and-ink caricature, 1907, NPG
  • W. Orpen, sketch, 1907 (Lane's dinner party), repro. in Arnold, Orpen, 247
  • caricature, 1907, repro. in Foster, W. B. Yeats
  • G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1909, NPG, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • W. Orpen, group portrait, oils, 1909 (Homage to Manet), Man. City Gall.
  • G. Kelly, oils, 1914, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork
  • photograph, 1914, repro. in Gregory, Sir Hugh Lane
  • photograph, 1914, repro. in [C. Lane], ‘Lost on the Lusitania—Sir Hugh Lane’, The Times (81915–10 May 1915)
  • M. Beerbohm, caricature, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • S. Keating, oils, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • W. Orpen, crayon sketch, repro. in Arnold, Orpen, 48
  • W. Orpen, ink caricature, NG Ire.
  • A. Power, marble bust?, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • photograph, repro. in Arnold, Orpen
  • photograph, repro. in C. Fahy, W. B. Yeats and his circle (1989)

Wealth at Death

£50,000 plus approximately £100,000 for pictures in Lindsey House, Chelsea