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Art for art's sake.


Hugh Lane

Dufour Editions, Inc.; Lilliput Press, 2001, $49.95

ROBERT O'BYRNE'S BIOGRAPHY OF Hugh Lane whisks the contemporary reader into another world that Lane defined by his refined style and sensibility. Lane was a gentleman, an esthete, a bon vivant and a businessman. His brief but full life spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and was determined by a passion, which continuously plunged him into a never-ending mire of controversy. Compelling and provocative, O'Byrne's thoughtful biographic exploration isn't a tell-all, titillating page-turner that digs deep for the mysterious and enigmatic private revelations and details of the startlingly committed, private and controversial man that was Huge Lane, 1875-1915. Lane's passion wasn't concerned with the corporeal nature of life, but rather was tied to an unwavering obsession with tine paintings in general and collecting and dealing fine art in particular. Throughout his adult life, he sought to elevate the public's understanding and appreciation of Irish art and this desire was culminated in his pro tracted efforts to fight, cajole, proselytize and manipulate in order to create a modern gallery for Irish art in Dublin.

O'Byrne's approach to the painfully brief life of the contrarian Lane could easily have delved deep into his personal life that, even today, is the subject of endless discussions. It is a pleasure to read a thoughtful and considerate biography, which adopts a discreet and respectful attitude towards the subject, towards the intimacies of a subjects' personal life.

O'Byrne introduces the reader to the unusual circumstances surrounding Lane's childhood, provides a brief account of his youth, and speedily proceeds to establish the structure for the rest of the book, which is devoted to an exhaustive introduction and explanation of the controversial events that surrounded Lane throughout his brief adult life. Thorough, detailed and well organized, O'Byrne interpretation of this extraordinarily complex and enigmatic man can be summarized as Lane being a person who while being both driven and committed was surprisingly naive and somewhat insular in his outlook and understanding of political and cultural forces beyond his grasp. O'Byrne's take on the trajectory of Lane's life has an almost Dickensian quality to it, being comprised of a sequence of one dramatic obstacle after another that Lane must overcome in his quest to increase the public's appreciation of art, including both Irish contemporary paintings and well established and regarded European old master paintings. Cons istently thwarted, harangued and misunderstood, Lane suffered from a prodigious amount of bad timing coupled with his own lack of sensitivity and understanding for his contemporary peers political, cultural and economic struggles.

Lane's mother, Adelaide Persse, was from the landed gentry class in County Galway. Her husband, James Lane, was from a tradesman family, originally from Cork and became a Trinity College Divinity student. Adelaide's choice for a husband was not well received by her financially superior family. The marriage was fruitful, albeit ultimately unsuccessful. James began his career in a Yorkshire parish, followed by future work in Bath and Corn-wall. Adelaide had eight children altogether, although two girls died shortly after their birth. She traveled extensively throughout her marriage on trips fueled by her own family's finances and her apparent need for personal space away from James. Hugh Percy Lane was born on November 9, 1875, in Bally-brack in Douglas, two miles from Cork City. His birthplace is ironically linked with the sad circumstances of his eventual death. Except for his chance birth in Cork during his mother's temporary visit to Ireland, Lane was never again to visit Cork, but his death as a result of the bombing of the Lusitania occurred within sight of his birthplace.

Through the assistance and connections of his matrilineal aunt, Lady Augusta Gregory, Lane entered the world of London art dealing and established himself early on in London under the thoughtful eye of dealer Martin Colnaghi. As mentor, Colnaghi inspired, taught and trained the formally uneducated Lane to develop a highly distinguished "eye" or intuitive understanding for what made art "fine." Quickly moving out on his own, Lane began to deal in old masters and developed a reputation while managing a small gallery at 2 Pall Mall Place, London. At this time, art dealing, as we know it now didn't exist. The very concept of art as an investment had increased in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and those who chose to make a living within that nascent field were still perceived with some doubt as to their credibility. Lady Gregory's friend Sir Arthur Birch suggested that there might be an alternative profession that Lane would be better suited for, "evidently, this was no profession for a gentleman." T he respectability associated with an art dealer's reputation was critical. Often, dealer's recommendations for buying and selling relied on their intuitive eye and instinct, in opposition to the increasingly prevalent discipline of "academic connoisseurship" amongst art dealers. Lane made a name for himself at a precocious age and was reputed to scour galleries for paintings that were either misattributed or underpriced and ripe for the picking by an discerning eye.

While Lane was working in London, Lady Gregory was becoming increasingly involved with the Irish cultural scene. She befriended W.B. Yeats and Edward Martyn, together they created the Irish Literary theatre in 1899. Her views on politics were swayed by the growing nationalism that pervaded Ireland at that time. This was not the case with young Lane who was unimpressed initially with his aunt's cohorts. In contrast, he rather preferred the Irish vice regal crowd, indisputably well established, older, richer and titled. For an art dealer, good social contacts were essential, and Lane naturally drifted towards the crowd in Dublin that either had the income and the propensity for spending, or had the inventory for potential selling. Inevitably, he was retained to advise on purchases and estimates, and the contacts he established through these efforts would be indispensable when the markets later changed and the aristocracy was inclined to sell their disposable paintings to accumulate income. Through Lady Gregory, Lane made the acquaintance of painter John B. Yeats, who was the father of Jack B. the painter and W.B. the poet. Lane commissioned the elder Yeats for a portrait sequence that would depict prominent Irishmen, along with notable English political figures who were associated with Ireland. These included George Moore, Douglas Hyde, Horace Plunkett, and J.M! Synge. From the inception Lane intended that these canvases would be donated to an Irish national portrait gallery that he desired to establish. Early in his career, Lane began to envision a rebirth of Irish art from its existing 'moribund' condition. The inception of this idea became the dominant goal of his life and is the subject of O'Byrne's focus for the balance of the book. In 1902, Lane proposed the idea of an exhibition of old master's paintings to be held at the Dublin Royal Hibernian Academy. Lane believed that to effectively encourage the growth of an Irish art market, contemporary culture's taste and appreciation for great art needed to be devel oped and propagated. Therefore, his interest in exhibiting old master paintings from the homes of Irish aristocrats was logical and seemly. Unfortunately for Lane, throughout his life many of his motivations, while seemingly understandable today, were suspect to criticism from his peers. The exhibition (like most projects that Lane would turn his attention to) was a significant success, yet there were elements of controversy that swirled around his tireless efforts of Irish art promotion. In this initial project, there was a question of attribution problem involving a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The accompanying hoopla in the press provoked the resignations of several honorary exhibition executive committee members, and precipitated the questioning of Lane's motives and his reputation as a dealer and judge of old master paintings. O'Bynre's take on the whole affair succinctly encapsulates the issues which plagued Lane in his quest to promote the case for Irish art in the early twentieth century. As an En glish art dealer, Lane's interest in, and access to, the inventories of old master paintings within historic Irish households was suspect. The questions raised centered on whether his intentions were honorable or was he just brilliantly manipulative? O'Byrne presents Lane as misunderstood and resolute, though perhaps lacking somewhat in sensitivity with respect to contemporary cultural concerns.

O'Byrne highlights the quest towards Lane's secondary goal in life, which was his unceasing pursuit of an official position and title for himself. While he was hugely successful as an old master art dealer, "being a dealer would never be as satisfying to him as being the director of a state gallery or museum. The one brought him money, the other honour, [sic] and it was the second of these which mattered more to him."

O'Byrne takes special care to emphasize the impact that Impressionism had on Lane and his future aims to create, develop and house a substantial collection of modern art, all of which he desired to bequeath to a municipal gallery of modern art in Ireland. Lane was one of the few collectors in Britain and Ireland, who consistently and aggressively purchased Impressionist paintings, a clear indication of his prescient eye. He made his money dealing in old master paintings, but once Lane was exposed to the merits, excitement and possibilities of modern art (especially Impressionism), this influence significantly effected his purchases going forward for the project that was to consume his life thereafter, the establishment of a modern art gallery in Dublin.

The trials and tribulations that Lane experienced as a result of his efforts in this quest are thoroughly documented by O'Byrne. Significant attention is paid to detailing the many personalities involved, the roadblocks encountered, and the myriad social and political forces that combined to drastically delay his efforts for securing and designing an approved space for the controversial modern art gallery. Significant to this convoluted process is the additional factor of Lane's will, as it relates to his estate and the two conditional gifts that were part of his bequest. In 1906, Lane designated a collection that was promised to the prospective Irish art gallery that included 114 Irish, British, European and American paintings and sculpture. Additionally, Lane specified another segment of his collection to be donated that was comprised of his modern paintings and included works by Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro. This secondary or conditional provision was promised to the prospective gallery should a suitable space be found in a timely manner. The implied threat of the conditional paintings withdrawal served to motivate support within Ireland and increase the pressure to find a suitable space for the total collection.

O'Byrne's efforts to explain the complicated reasons for the gallery's delay clarifies and documents repeated instances of Lane's utter failure to appreciate or comprehend the nuances of the social, cultural and political context that was Dublin in the early twentieth century. The author presents Lane as an innocent, yet ultimately naive outsider who never quite got an accurate reading of the pulse of his contemporaries. Ironically, Lane was so committed to his quest to raise and educate the Irish public's knowledge of the glories of art that he failed to fully comprehend the complexities of the changing society around him. Undeniably, his insistence on maintaining his residence outside of Ireland, his English accent, his upbringing and eventual knighthood from the Crown, as well as his association with those whom O'Byrne calls the "castle set" in Dublin thwarted Irish support for his projects. At this time, Nationalist fervor was growing and Lane unfortunately lacked sufficient appreciation of the complexity of contemporary Irish politics. With a twenty-first century view backwards, Lane's predicament can be understood as "not as a dispute between those who care about contemporary art and those who were indifferent to the subject but as a metaphor for the ongoing power struggle between the old Ascendancy order and a new Irish, nationalist, Catholic and middle class taking shape." The inclusion of well placed quotes by Lane and his peers adds much to a contemporary appreciation of early twentieth century political, social and cultural conflicts. Lane indisputably had a unique spin on such dicey matters, "I do not believe in listening to the 'man in the street' as any new or original scheme is opposed by the man on the street, because he does not understand it."

Fed up with the bureaucratic difficulties associated with the Dublin Corporation's delay in funding and the disagreement over the choice of architect and site, caused by Lane's insistence that he have the last word on both, Lane removed the conditional gift pictures from the temporary. Municipal Gallery on Harcourt Street. His intentions were to force the Dublin Corporation's hand for selecting a permanent site in a timely manner and then to return the conditional collection, During this period, serious housing and labor problems threatened the city of Dublin, and once again Lane seemed impervious to the ramifications of the contemporary municipal struggles. "To him, disasters were inconveniences." The drama didn't end there however. Furious, Lane entered into a series of convoluted negotiations with the National Gallery of London to foster an exhibition of the 39 paintings that were contested as part of the conditional gift originally intended for the Municipal Gallery of Dublin.

In 1914, after much stress, publicity and turmoil, Lane was elected as Director of the National Gallery of Ireland. This announcement finally gave him the official recognition that he had sought for so long. Typical of Lane, he seemed incapable of enjoying the fruits of his laborious efforts to achieve this status. Ironically, just after the announcement of the desired appointment, Lane wrote to Lady Gregory, I am feeling very depressed at my new responsibilities, but I am sure that once I get started it will be absorbing." In that same year, Lane was plagued by health problems, diagnosed with neurasthenia, and also suffered financial insecurity. Heavily in debt, he agreed to sail for the United States to do an assessment of paintings owned by dealer Joseph Duveen, whose paintings had been damaged while on board the SS Mississippi in a transatlantic crossing. Prior to his trip, he wrote a codicil to his will of October 13. In effect this codicil reversed the clause stated in the previous document, which indic ated that the conditional gift of paintings should be donated to the National Gallery of London. The new codicil stated that the paintings were indeed to be given to the Dublin Municipal Gallery, "providing a suitable building is provided for them within five years of my death." He intended that the total collection would be housed in Dublin on the condition that an appropriate site be found for a permanent collection. Signing and initialing the document in three places, he nonetheless declined to have the codicil witnessed and put it into his private desk. Two months later he departed for the United States on April 11, 1915. For his return trip, he was undeterred from sailing on the Lusitania though warned by American friend John Quinn. The Lusitania was a British registered vessel and was thus vulnerable to attacks from German submarines. The ship left New York on May 1 and was hit by a German U-20 submarine in sight of the shores of Cork on May 7, 1915.

As in life, events surrounding Lane's death were also controversial. Besides the obvious tragedy of his untimely death, the non-witnessed codicil proved to be extraordinarily problematic for the resolution of Lane's will. Dublin and London entered into a protracted period of disagreement as to the bequest of the conditional gift, and in O'Byrne's view, London retained the legal validity to the bequest while Dublin morally was entitled to the collection. O'Byrne gives an extraordinarily detailed account of the disputes which continued between the two countries until a modest resolution was decreed in 1959. The author's bifurcated opinion on this matter fittingly summarizes the complex and controversial tempest of emotions and facts that continue to swirl around the life of Hugh Lane, even after his death.
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Title Annotation:Hugh Lane
Author:Martin, Elizabeth Frances
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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